All anxiety disorders can devastate your life.
But panic attacks are unique in their ability to spread fear and uncertainty into every minute, every daily activity, every relationship.
You become a virtual prisoner of that fear, with all your freedom to act snatched by the awful anticipation of the next panic attack.
I had my first panic attack in 2002 while driving to work. My face, throat and chest became increasingly restricted and it became harder and harder to breathe. I started hyperventilating. My heart was pounding and my arms and face were getting numb. The world around me became distant and very strange, and I started seeing black spots like I was about to pass out. I was terrified that I was going completely crazy, was dying, or both.
The panic attacks soon developed into panic disorder and teamed up with agoraphobia, so I could go nowhere without having a panic attack. I would have panic attacks at home in bed, during meals, when going to the doctor, when cutting the grass. It seemed like no activity – or inactivity – was safe from panic attacks.
But that is not the end of the story. After years of help from excellent psychiatrists and psychologists, I have learned how to nip panic attacks in the bud before they blossom into full-blown events – using only coping strategies and no drugs. I have not had a full panic attack in three years and counting.
What’s my secret? There is no secret, just some hard-won observations. Here’s what panic attacks have taught me over the years:
Stress is a subtle enemy
Stress in one life area pops up in another
Stress is sneaky. It invades your whole life, and can pop up where you least expect it. Sure, you expect to be stressed at work or in a crowd. But how about sitting in an easy chair reading a mystery novel? Remember that stress soaks your life through and through like a baby’s diaper.
Getting rid of stress in your life is not easy, and it’s not quick. But it’s not impossible, either.
Instead of attacking stress indiscriminately, remember that it’s really one big jungle vine with lots of tendrils. You can whack at the tendrils all day long, but they’ll just grow back – it’s the roots of the vine you want to get to.
Living in the future leads to disaster
Living in the future deprives you of the present
One common thread running through all anxiety disorders is fear of the future. And simply telling yourself not to live in the future is like telling yourself not to think of red demons.
One of the biggest red anxiety demons is the panic attack. In a sense, it’s being overwhelmed with the future, with thoughts of what might happen and how we will cope with it, and while it’s happening, whether you will die or will be permanently harmed by the onslaught.
We often (too often?) hear that we should live in the present for peace of mind. However hackneyed the statement, it’s true.
The great Samuel Johnson says it as well as anyone:
[Living in the future] shows an equal ignorance of our proper sphere, to harass our thoughts with conjectures about things not yet in being. How can we regulate events, of which we yet know not whether they will ever happen? And why should we think, with painful anxiety, about that on which our thoughts can have no influence?
I did not start recovering from panic disorder until I had dealt firmly with my obsessions with the future and what terrors it held just for me.
I am not alone
How many people are having panic attacks right now?
Another common aspect of all mental illnesses is the feeling that you are all alone and that your predicament is unique in all the world. Mental illness causes us to turn inward, and as we focus on our own suffering it’s easy to forget the suffering of others.
When you are having a full-blown panic attack in the middle of the supermarket, you don’t want to hear – can’t hear – that others have panic attacks, too. While you feel like you’re about to die and your knees are buckling, it’s hard to think about how many people all over the world are feeling the same way at that exact same moment.
You are not alone. There are millions of other people who suffer from panic attacks. In pursuit of eliminating panic attacks, you will need to persistently chip away at your feeling of isolation.
Panic attacks mask other personal problems
Life problems and stresses contribute to panic attacks
Remember that panic attacks are just a symptom; they are not the root of the problem. Scientists are learning more daily about the genetic causes of mental illness. I carried the gene for panic attacks all my life, but had my first one only when I was fifty-six.
Why? Because the beginning of my panic attacks were triggered by a platoon of life problems and stresses that ganged up on me all at the same time. Somewhere inside me, my genetic propensity for panic attacks was awakened and soon took over.
Some people have a stronger genetic tendency to panic attacks than others. Since both genetic and environmental factors play strong parts in our psychological makeup, we cannot lay the blame for panic attacks solely on our genes. Apparently I had developed some resistance to panic attacks over the years, but it crumbled in the face of the accumulation of life problems.
Since panic attacks often are just a symptom of a larger personal issues, you may have to find and resolve those issues before you can expect your panic attacks to ease.
You are not a panic attack
You are not a panic attack – you have panic attacks
Frequent panic attacks have a way of radically changing your outlook on things, and especially your attitude toward yourself. When you live in fear every minute, you get to thinking of yourself as a walking panic attack, a bomb that might explode at any instant. You don’t have panic attacks, you are a panic attack.
But one of the first steps toward conquering panic attacks is to change this attitude. Despite the chaos of panic attacks, you are ultimately in control of how you think about them and yourself.
Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor, said it best:
Everything can be taken from a person but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
You are your own best physician
Healing is ultimately up to you
Despite the best psychiatrists and psychologists (and I’ve had some of the best, including a guy who led research on SSRI’s and actually named them), you are ultimately responsible for your own recovery.
Your psychologist can talk until they’re blue in the face. Your psychiatrist may prescribe bushels of pills. But if you don’t act on what they do for you, you will get no better – and possibly get worse.
It’s you that will have to dig deep to get to the root of your problems. It’s you who will have to persistently work to create a healthy attitude. It’s you that will have to take your medications.
And in the last analysis, it’s you who are your best physician. In reality, you heal yourself with a little help from professionals.
You are stronger than you think
Learn to defeat a feeling of helplessness
Mental illness is emotionally and physically draining. At the end of yet another day of battling your demons, you feel like a wet noodle. Yet you keep on, and face a new day with some measure of hope, with the determination to take one more step toward freedom from panic attacks.
So it is with justifiable pride that you can look back and see how far you’ve come, even if it is just a baby step. Because it is a step that you have had the strength to take.
Three years after my last full panic attack, I am surprised at the strength that I showed in persevering in the battle against panic attacks. But that pride is tempered by humility when I also marvel at all the wonderful help I’ve had along the way.
The feeling of freedom from panic attacks is beyond description, but I’m not so foolish as to think I could never have another one. The difference is that I’ve developed the tools and the strength to overcome panic attacks should they reoccur.
“Wait:” Choose the time for action
Finally, my mantra, “Wait.” It’s been a lifesaver during all those panic attacks I suffered through, as well as the dire effects of the bipolar disorder I also have fought for almost two decades.
“Wait” is more than patience, more than forced calmness, more than passive acceptance of the present situation. It is the confidence that you have the strength to get through the current inner hurricane until it passes, as it always does. It is the certain knowledge that a panic attack is one of the biggest hoaxes that your brain can try to fool you with.
And if repeated enough, it comes to symbolize every positive action you have been and are taking against the evil that is a panic attack.
Freedom is more than a pretty word
I’ve mentioned the word “freedom” several times, and that’s what it feels like to rid yourself of the constant fear that panic attacks bring. And like political freedom, you can’t just sit back and think that your work is all done. Freedom takes daily maintenance of your attitude, examining and correcting your thoughts, and maintaining the levee you have built up against the wild ravaging river that is panic attacks.