Who I am
Hopefully someone will read through my experience, and find comfort in it or help because of it.
I am 39 year old, White female (Upstate, NY). I have always been a high level anxiety person without the full-blown symptoms of panic attacks…at first. I began having full-blown symptoms of panic at age 30. I’ve always been a worrier, as well as a very phobic and a medically conscious person, so I can see why I would be a great candidate for having full-blown panic attacks and scary, racing thoughts all the time.
I know that everyone’s panic symptoms are different even if we all have some of the same ones in common. My most scariest and difficult symptom to deal with was a racing heartbeat. My body would even wake me up at night out of a sound sleep with a racing heartbeat. It got to the point where I was monitoring my pulse constantly. My other symptoms included being fidgety or restless, tunnel vision or feeling slightly unreal, and I would become very tired and quiet. Sometimes I felt that I wasn’t breathing ‘right’, even though I was able to take good breaths, and I was always really hot (felt like I had a fever) during really panicky moments. I experienced a hard tightness around the back of my neck region that usually led to headaches after a bad panic attack.
My Panic Background
At first, I wasn’t too scared about my panic symptoms. Since I had only two full-blown panic attacks within weeks of each other, I chalked it up to a one-time instance, and it didn’t get the best of me.
However, within three months of my second panic attack, I really thought I was either going crazy or there was something horribly wrong with me medically, because I started having these bizarre symptoms that would come out of nowhere (it seemed) and then the end result would be that even though the symptoms faded, the fear of them coming back and how I felt when I remembered them would haunt me every day.
Within those first three months everything just started to fall apart in a ripple-effect. And it happened fast. All of a sudden it seemed that I was afraid of everything, including my own bodily symptoms. First I was scared that something was awfully wrong with me because my heart rate was racing constantly – even at rest. I began to monitor my pulse wherever I was which added to my anxiety because I was so conscious of my body “doing it” again. Then, it got so I was afraid to be alone anywhere – even in work. At work, I would get panicky when I had to go in the back storage room because there was no-one around. I wasn’t able to take a shower by myself without someone in the house being downstairs with me, and even then, I would be extremely panicky in the shower and I would have to leave the bathroom door open. My parents couldn’t even run out to the store – if they did, I couldn’t stay in the house alone; I would have to stand outside because even though both were scary to me at the time, being outdoors felt better because in my mind, if I needed “help” someone could get to me faster. Driving became extremely difficult, and for a few months I stopped altogether because it was just too stressful. Going to the store or mall was now out. It seemed like everything caused me to feel overly anxious and bring on panicky symptoms. Anything that I found once pleasurable now was a big stressor for me – I actually felt too overwhelmed to do much of anything.
Soon it was "something every day" with me. If I wasn't worrying about one body part or symptom, I was worrying about another.
During this whole time, I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through except for my immediate family – because I relied heavily on them for everything from driving me to work, to having someone sit with me because I couldn’t be left alone.
One afternoon, on a particularly bad day of trying to drive and my parents had to once again come and get me because I had another panic attack in the car, I was lying in my bed crying, convinced I was very, very sick. My parents at this point were beside themselves because they didn’t know what else to do for me. My mother called our next door neighbor, who happened to have been dealing with panic symptoms for many years, and she came over to talk to me.
I was slightly embarrassed when she burst into my bedroom because I hadn’t told anyone but my immediate family, and now here was a neighbor in my house, talking to me about my experience and hers while I lay there crying, in a ball of fear and depression. That was my turning point, a slow turning point, but one nonetheless. Even though I didn’t think my neighbor knew exactly how I was feeling or exactly what I was going through, talking to someone else made me feel less alone and a little more calmer about my situation. So much so, that after those few months of lying around doing nothing, I decided that I didn’t want to be panic-paralyzed forever because it was boring, and the only person who was going to take that first step was me. It took me a while to get to this point however, but I did make the decision to try to move forward.
What I did to feel better and cope
If you are feeling out of control with your situation, I can completely relate to that, because I’ve been there many times, too. First, realize that you are not alone. Second, I think putting together a plan to take care of yourself during this rough time is a good idea. This way, at least a part of you won’t feel so out of control.
These are the steps that I took to feel more like my old self:
1. Cut out caffeine! It truly does have an effect on your nervous system.
2. Learn to breathe right – now this sounds STUPID, but it will be the quickest thing you can do to feel better, even if it’s only short term. Breathing correctly will help stop your panic symptoms and calm you down internally. My counselor showed me this at our first session, and it was because of this “trick” that I was able to drive myself to work again.
- Sit or lie down (ha ha, I used to do this while I was driving because I have many panic attacks in the car).
- Put one hand on your stomach (upper abdomen).
- Put the other hand on your lower abdomen.
- Relax your body as much as possible (this will be hard if you’re right in the middle of a panic attack. It’s easier when you’re just very nervous and feel like you “gotta get out”).
- Pretend there’s a beach ball in your lower abdomen. Your goal is to fill it up slowly to the count of four.
- So, to the count of 4 (1-2-3-4) breathe in through your nose and extend your lower abdomen at the same time.
If your chest is rising, you are shallow breathing, and that won’t calm your body down internally.
- Now, exhale through your mouth to the count of 4 (1-2-3-4), slowly deflate that beach ball in your lower abdomen.
- If you feel lightheaded, that is normal (just what you want to hear when you’re panicking, right?). Just alter your breathing to a little faster or slower, until that feeling goes away. That is your body’s normal response to deep breathing.
- Basically, the hand on your lower abdomen should move; the hand on your stomach should not. This may take some practice – but it will work, even if you don’t believe it.
3. Make an appointment with your primary care doctor and be completely open and honest about what you’re going through. Even if it’s hard or embarrassing, tell your doctor all your scary feelings and symptoms and thoughts. Let your doctor know any medical fears that bother you the most (like a brain tumor, which seems to be a common fear for people who have panic). The first thing you can do to make yourself feel better is to know that you are a healthy person. Once you can accept that there is nothing horribly medically wrong with you, it will be easier for you to focus on dealing with your panic and anxiety. For me, this acceptance was a very hard part. Your doctor may or may not suggest some additional tests to rule out a few illnesses that could cause symptoms of panic attacks – if your doctor feels you need them, get them for peace of mind and to rule out other things. If your doctor feels you don’t need them, have faith in your doctor that you don’t! Again, that’s a hard one for me, because I was always looking for a medical reason as to why I was feeling this way.
4. Spend a few dollars on a very simple but effective book called “Hope and Help for your Nerves” by Dr. Claire Weekes. As I mentioned, when I was first having panic attacks, I mostly stopped going to work and would lie around in bed all day waiting for the worst to happen. I constantly monitored my body functions and felt distraught most of the time. The neighbor who came right into my bedroom to tell me all about her experiences with panic, helped me with an initial “plan of attack” (like I am suggesting here), and gave me her copy of the book I mentioned. I read it in one sitting and immediately felt better to the point where that week I set up counseling for myself. Eventually I bought my own copy of this book, and I carried it everywhere I went because it really calmed me down to read a passage when I was feeling anxious or out of control.
5. Have your doctor provide you with a referral with a counselor who specializes in panic disorders and anxiety. It felt good to be able to talk to someone freely about my fears and feelings – keeping them inside doesn’t make you feel any better.
If you can’t afford a doctor, look in your phone book under Most Frequently Called Numbers or the Human Services Guide (etc); these pages will provide a listing of numbers that you can call to get assistance when you can’t afford it or don’t know where to look. At the very least, call LifeLine, and they can help put you in touch with someone who can listen. At the very most, maybe there is a trusted family member or friend that you can turn to when you’re going through a bad panic moment. It really is more stressful to keep it all inside.
6. Stop reading medical stuff. You should be able to talk to a doctor you feel comfortable with, and leave your medical diagnosis up to him or her. For people who are panic prone, who worry about medical issues, the more knowledge you have on that kind of topic can just be more stressful. You may think you’re helping yourself be more prepared “just in case”, but actually, you are only adding fuel to the fire. Been there, done that many times.
7. Take the time to listen your panic symptoms objectively. This is really hard to do when you’re right in the middle of a panic attack, I know. I had to stop being so afraid of the symptoms (accepting) before I was able to say, “Isn’t this interesting that my heart is racing just now”, instead of saying, “OHMYGAWDMYHEARTISRACINGRIGHTNOW”. But once I was able to nod to myself and acknowledge my symptoms, they didn’t seem so bad because after a while I realized that this was just the way my body was reacting to something, even if I didn’t know at the moment what it was it was reacting to. After a while, why it was reacting wasn’t so important as to how I was coping with the symptoms. After a while, I would just acknowledge my symptoms but not stop what I was doing as I would have in the past because I was so afraid of what was happening. I know also that I can give myself added panic symptoms by doing or saying something that makes me feel uncomfortable, so I’ve changed parts of myself to accommodate this – meaning I’m not so quick to jump on people, or get angry, or take things personally. It doesn’t mean I don’t get angry or I don’t criticize, but there’s less of a reason for it.
8. Remember, although it may not seem like it, in whatever stage of panic you are in, there is always a light at the end of that scary tunnel. And in your own time (no-one else’s), when you’re ready to move forward a little more, you will. People who tell you to “just get over it” are well meaning, but may not understand the depth of your experience. That’s ok. You will find many well intentioned people offering their advice. Deep down inside, you’ll find a way through panic that works for you. I always used to tell myself, “oh well, this is how it’s going to be right now, so I’ll find what enjoyment I am able to right now”. I felt sorry for myself because I was so outgoing and I remember how carefree I was before panic.
9. Move your muscles! Exercise in any form really does make the body feel better (make sure you get your doctor's OK). For a time, I was even afraid of exercising because in some ways, exertion sensations can feel like panic symptoms. But exercise is a good way to calm your body down. If you are hyperventillating (for example), do jumping jacks! It sounds silly, but since these symptoms feel the same to your body, substitute one reason for having those symptoms, for the another. Instead of pacing in worry, speed walk around the yard. Exercise releases natural chemicals in the body that aide in relaxation. It's hard to want to exercise in the middle of an anxiety or worry attack, but it truly does help. That's not to say that you always have to be in constant motion - the idea is to focus on your symptoms in a different way, not tire yourself out.
10. Keep a journal! It's amazing how much people hold things inside. Although a journal is not like confiding something to a real person who can give you feedback, psychological "airing it out" relieves stress and tension. It's like venting without voice! Journaling can be done anywhere, and allows you to alleviate immediate stress. This way, instead of playing over and over again a bad moment at work (for example), you can take a break and jot down your upset or worry to "get it off your chest". This will help you over time to not obsess about a thought or experience as much, and you will begin to rely more on yourself for problem solving and self-calm, than on others. I carry my journal with me, and it looks just like a dozen other notepads that anyone can have for any reason. I am able to look back at my entries and see the progress I have made (going from a daily, worry-wart writer to writing when I was in panic mode, to writing about good things).
11. Maybe I should list this first! Next to counseling, prayer has been for me the most effective way to calm myself. I usually repeat The Lord's Prayer, which is something I find comforting from my childhood, and that has the power to calm me now, almost immediately.
Don’t be too rough on yourself right now. Accept your situation for what it is. You are a person who is experiencing panic and anxiety. It doesn’t make you sick or crazy, and it doesn’t make you unworthy or bad. For me, I was so anxious to “be cured” that I really wasn’t paying attention to all the things that would make me feel better. At first, I was too anxious and overwhelmed to do much of anything except put energy and effort into worrying over my situation. I am a very body-conscious person, so my main fears centered around “what if” panic. “What if I have a brain tumor”…”What if I have cancer”…”What if I have a panic attack alone and I need help”….it took me a while to relax about those kinds of thoughts.
Also, with panic, for me, came depression. I was limited because of my fears and feelings, and feeling hopeless and helpless. It really seemed to be spiraling out of control. Bouncing back from panic wasn’t easy for me; but over some time I was able to listen to my body’s symptoms without thinking the worst because I was able to take them for what they were – just panic. Once I accepted my panic symptoms, I was more able to focus on teaching myself some better ways to think about things and better ways to cope with my fearful thoughts. But, it really is a matter of baby steps – a little patience at a time will truly get you far. I think experiencing panic has made me a better and stronger person. I know my body well now so I’m not so afraid of it. I am more sympathetic and sensitive to other peoples’ fears and worries (because I am The Queen of Worrying). I know it is important for me to take care of myself by being kind and patient to myself, by knowing the things that lead me to feel more nervous, by talking things out more, but seeking help when I need to ask for it, and by helping others because I can.
Medication is a great idea when dealing with panic too. I am terrified of taking new medications (my phobic issue), so I didn’t try any medications for a few years. Once I felt I was past the worst of my panic (meaning I stopped having full blown panic attacks every day and I was feeling less scared about things) then I did try some medications. I currently do not take anything, but I have friends who swear by it.
Don’t be ashamed of what you’re experiencing. For the longest time I didn’t tell anyone my panic “secret”. I was embarrassed for a number of reasons. But along the way, I realized that panic is a part of me, and I wanted those people close to me to know how hard a time I was having. And honestly, it was getting too stressful to always either make up excuses why I wasn’t going out or why I was acting a certain way when I was panicky. This didn’t mean that I shouted it from the roof! - Panic is a personal experience, so who you tell and when is up to you, but it felt better knowing that some people knew where I was in life at that time, and believe it or not, once I started chatting about it, I found out that other people were going through the same thing. Plus, when you reach out, you don’t feel so alone – I felt alone with panic for a long time because it seemed that everyone around me was “normal” except for me.
Panic attacks and anxiety can go hand in hand, or someone could have the anxiety (worried thoughts) without the actual full-blown panic attacks. Unfortunately I have both.
At first I was too panicked and worrisome to even read something this long! But I promise you that there is a big wonderful light at the end of the tunnel – but you have to give yourself some honest time to get things in perspective. You may not believe me – and I understand that completely.
You will be fine even if you don’t think so right now. That’s ok. Give yourself some time to believe that you are ok even with panicky or worrisome feelings. I don’t consider myself cured by any means – I probably will always have the fear demon to deal with more than most people I know; but coming to terms with the kind of person I am has made things better for me when dealing with my issues. My panic waxes and wanes, so I do have my share of setbacks, but I’m no longer the person who lies in bed all day and doesn’t go shopping! Everyone has their own issues; and some people can breeze past their fears and anxieties with little impact on their lives – I happen to not be one of those people, but that’s okay. One step at a time, even if it’s a tiny one. “It doesn’t matter the size of my steps, as long as I’m faced in the right direction”.
[This message has been edited by Wowwweee (edited 07-28-2003).]