Pulled through Stress
On 25th February this year (2008), I experienced a truly terrifying episode, which changed how I viewed my world and how I viewed myself. Prior to that evening, I had been working very (too) hard and had existed on very little sleep. To compound the problem, I was drinking more alcohol than I should have and was permanently dehydrated. I had received a few warnings before but had ignored them. My friends and family had told me to cut the work rate but I thought better… The night before the big stress reaction, I had experienced dizziness and anxiety but had shrugged it off.
So, I was sat at home that fateful evening with my partner when, out-of-the-blue, I felt my heart rate increase dramatically. It increased to around 120-130 beats per minute and this change was accompanied by feelings of agitation, leading to extreme anxiety and a progression into a full panic attack. I had never experienced such a thing in my 43 years and was unprepared for the reaction. I stood up out of my chair and said to my partner, ‘I think I’m going mad. This is it!’ The feelings were similar to feelings I had as a child when I experienced a reoccurring nightmare in which I dreamt I was flying through rocky tunnel and as I progressed through the tunnel, it became narrower and narrower; to the point where it completely closed in on me, producing feelings of claustrophobic terror. Now, as a 43 year old, the feelings were back, seeping into my consciousness; polluted, nasty feelings.
My partner was as scared as me but tried to calm me down. Her efforts felt useless but in doing so, she guided me from one minute to the next. I couldn’t stop panicking and found myself looking at the clock every few minutes. Everything was extraordinary and I had the feeling of inhabiting someone else’s body and mind. It didn’t feel like mine anymore. Everything looked familiar but I felt like a stranger. I decided to go out for a ride on my bicycle but after about half a mile, I couldn’t go on and needed the safety and security of my house. When I got home, the symptoms were more pronounced. I had permanent urge of wanting to burst into tears, I had constant diarrhea and I found it impossible to eat anything except bread, helped down with lots and lots of water. Water was a source of comfort for me and I drank lots of it. My throat felt closed up and water was easy to bypass the ‘block’. That night, I slept badly; waking every 45 minutes but thinking I had slept for many hours. Checking the clock was a major disappointment. The night dragged…
The next morning I saw the doctor and she diagnosed a ‘stress reaction’. I was prescribed beta blockers and sleeping tablets. I remember trying to talk to her but kept crying and drinking more water. I couldn’t go anywhere without my bottle of water. My partner became my spokesperson. The rest of the day was just as bad. As I was scared of driving, my partner drove us to a beauty spot and we walked arm in arm for 15 minutes. Then, I felt like we’d strayed too far from the car so we had to go back. The day continued to deal out one dangerous situation after another. I was hyper and tired at the same time and my body felt like it had been pulled to pieces.
With the beta blockers and the sleeping tablets, I slept better that evening but promised myself I would get off the tablets as soon as possible. I noticed the anxiety would peak in the morning and around 5.30. It would take me around an hour to rid myself of the extreme (grade 10) anxiety and for it to settle to a grade 6 or 7. These feelings of very high anxiety were now accompanied by a huge depressive swing and very, very dark thoughts. These thoughts were very disturbing and worried me very much. All I can say is, I was going through a period of extreme hypersensitivity. It looked like I would not be able to work for a while. My doctor wrote me off work for the two weeks leading up to the Easter break and all my immediate gigs ( I’m a professional musician) were cancelled. My partner had to do all the arranging as I was unable to speak to anyone.
The following day, I visited an acupuncturist and I found this very beneficial. I felt like I was being offered a way to recovery rather than just being offered pills to ‘cope’. I found the distinction inspiring and comforting. I walked away from the acupuncture session most reassured. The anxiety however continued. The next few days followed with reduced anxiety thanks to the beta blockers but I decided to cut the daily dose of 40 mg gradually over the next week. Eventually, I managed 4 full days without the blockers before I was forced to take them again. The anxiety was back, accompanied by crushing depressive periods of a few hours at a time. This trial and error with the blockers continued over the next few weeks, but the end result was always anxiety and depression.
Eventually I spoke (on the phone) to the wife of a drummer friend who is a hypnotherapist. She could detect my breathing was erratic and suggested I attend to it immediately. She mentioned that all my negative feelings could be controlled with proper breathing exercises. I was ready and willing to try anything. Over the phone she instructed me to breathe in through my nose in for 7 counts, hold for 2, out through my nose for 11 counts and rest for two counts. Repeat for 15 minutes morning, noon and evening. This new routine was a turning point for my recovery. Here was something I could depend on to calm me down when I needed it. After a week of breathing exercises, I decided to cut the blockers again. This time I was able to dispense with the blockers completely.
Things continued to improve over the next few weeks although I was still unable to teach and play music. However, eventually after this period, I took on a few local gigs. These were good fun to do and it was a relief to be playing again. I was worried I had developed permanent stage fright. I played a gig in Monmouth (around 30 miles from my house). It would mean me having to stay the night with friends in Monmouth. I drank alcohol at the gig and then after waking up the next morning in a strange bed, the thumping fast heart returned followed by the anxiety. I was gutted and decided to cut the alcohol completely until I was well in the clear. It took me a few days to get back to some normality.
Two weeks ago, I started back at work and after a few anxious days, things are pretty much back to as they were. Driving is fine and any unpredictable situations are dealt with without a blink. Two days ago, my heart stopped thumping. I noticed it was just noticeably beating beneath the skin. Even though my pulse rate has been normal for a number of weeks, the thumping had continued. My heart returned to normal on 30th April, 67 days after my original attack. Life feels good again and I will make sure I never go down this road again.
There was one thing that I kept hoping for when I was caught up in the anxiety and confusion. I kept longing for the mundane process of day to life to return. I missed it so much. I was caught up in an extraordinary existence and it felt terrifying. I longed to be able to open the front door, say good morning to my neighbour and drive away without a thought; to be able to perform normal things without the ‘what if’ looming over me. I’m happy to say this is now the case and thank god for it….