Monday, November 25, 2013

Losing Control: Panic Attacks

Before I begin I want to not that while anxiety and panic attacks tend to go hand-in-hand, and I don't want make this post super duper long, I'm going to focus on just my panic attacks for this post. I had/have many, many anxieties and want to give anxiety it's proper focus.

Now, onward. 

My heart begins to beat hard and fast. My mind is racing at an uncontrollable pace. My hands begin to shake. My eyes water and tears stream down my face. My throat feels like it is closing and it is hard to breathe.

About 5 minutes later, it's over. I've had another panic attack.

What exactly is a panic attack? Well, a technical definition from is, " a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying."

To me, a panic attack is when you suddenly lose control of everything. From your body to your mind, you feel like you have quickly lost control due to reasons that could be unbeknownst to you. Your heart starts to race like you're being chased. Your hands start to shake uncontrollably. You're aware of nothing and everything at the same time. You can often feel like you are having a long-lasting heart attack and no one can help you because you yourself don't even know what's wrong. 

Then the next thing you know, it's over. And you're sat there wondering what the hell just happened and why it happened. You may not even realize you had a panic attack it was that short. Or you just don't even know what to call what happen or you shrugged it off as nervous energy, as it was with me in the beginning.

I often had mini panic attacks in high school. Whether it was over an exam, a field hockey game, where to sit at lunch, they seemed never ending at times. My heart rate would constantly be elevating when I thought about a situation that made me anxious, which quite frankly was all of the time. But I had never really seen one before so I never really realized that was what was happening until summer 2012 when I had a very bad, long one while I was on the phone with my mom. It was over me driving to the movies in Hunt Valley with a friend. I believe it was the driving part that triggered it, however I still don't know for sure.

Now let me back up a little to explain a few things. I have always been an anxious person, I do suffer from pretty bad anxiety; as in it's genetic and a true mental disorder. For the most part, there is no event that has triggered it, also known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There really is no one event that I can point to that causes my anxiety except, partially, when it comes to driving. 

I hated driving before I go my license but got it because it was/ is a necessity. The first day of my senior year of high school I was in a horrible car accident that left my car totaled. Before it, I was already an anxious driver but this accident just amplified it. And while I did get behind the wheel again the very next day because I had to drive to school, that didn't stop the heightened anxiety every time I slid into the driver's seat.

Now fast-forward a little and because I was rarely getting behind the wheel, any thought of me driving anywhere would bring on a panic attack, especially if I was driving somewhere I had rarely/never driven too. I basically lived in constant fear. The key to getting over my panic attacks and anxiety was to just drive and drive some more. But in order to do so, I actually had to work up the courage to get in the driver's seat, which was not an easy task.

To make matters worse, driving was not the only thing that caused these panic attacks. The there primary trigger was any thoughts of some sort of social gathering, hell at one point any type of social interactions, not involving my family and my mind immediately triggered a panic attack. While this may seem silly to some, this was my life. It's not that I WANTED to be this anxious and have all of these panic attacks, I just couldn't help it! They come on so suddenly sometimes that there is little time to stop it and you can only do your best to control them when they happen. 

The fact that they can happen at any time means one other thing: they can happen anywhere.

From my house to my car to the store to school, I've basically experienced one in any place you could imagine. This led me to essentially want to never leave the house. I would turn down invitations to parties, meals, etc. because I was terrified about what COULD happen. I became a hermit. I never really made friends. It sucked.

I lived in fear of many situations. I lived in fear of my anxiety. I lived in fear of panic attacks.


Due to the sometimes unknown nature of panic attacks as well as potential feelings of embarrassment, there are people who don't talk about their experiences. In turn, some don't get the help that is out there for them. I know I certainly was one of those people. As I mention in my story, I went to therapy. My therapist used Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, or CBT, with me. He helped me re-learn/ reprogram my responses to certain events/ stimuli that triggered my panic attacks. And I want to share a couple of those with you in the hopes that maybe someone else can benefit. Before I do, I want to instill one thing: if you do suffer from panic attacks just know that you are NEVER alone and there are things out there to help. No matter how lonely and scared you feel because of what you go through, you are never alone.

(As a quick side note, I feel like I should also mention that I am also medicated and that has also played a major role in helping me overcome my anxiety. This came about after conversations with both my therapist AND my physician as something that would be beneficial for me. They don't work for everyone. While I am for giving them a try I certainly DO NOT think this is a topic to take lightly. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS, consult with your doctor and listen to them. There's a reason they have the degrees they do.)

For me, deep breathing has been the main thing. My focusing on my breathing and that alone, I am able to relax, calm down, and return to 'normal'. If I feel a panic attack coming, no matter where I am, I do my best to stay quiet and focus in on controlling my breathing. I also try and make sure to stay positive in my thinking as I am doing so. Thinking, "Calm down! Don't be anxious! You're fine; quit worrying! Stop over-thinking! It's no big deal," only makes things worse because it works me up. I am sure others feel the same way. So I try to tell my self, "Focus. Deep breaths. Slow breaths. You're fine. There is nothing wrong it's just in your head. You are stronger than you think. You will be okay." 

Another way I have attempted to control them that may help others is that I began to be cognizant of when they occurred. I tried to note whenever I could when I had a panic attack. This actually really helped. I noticed that I hate sudden changes. I hate being unprepared. I hate being rushed. I hate knowing I might be late. This led me to learn how to go-with-the-flow more and take control. It took some 'baby steps', if you will, on my part but ultimately I have curbed the amount of potential panic attacks in those situations. That is not to say that I don't still like having a schedule/ being prepared, I definitely do, I have just learned that there are times where I have to be more flexible There are just times where things are out of my hands and I just need to roll with the punches all the while recognizing that a panic attack may arise.

In the past 12 months I have only had ONE panic attack. That was last month over a class and I'd like to think I handled it far better than I had previously. There have definitely been some other close calls however over time the previously mentioned methods have allowed me to manage them far better than I used to. Thinking about that now is almost freeing. If I can do it, so can you. Hopefully by sharing my experience some of you feel better and less alone in this. Panic attacks/disorders are one of the most treatable problems so if you want to change, in the wise words of Béla Károlyi "you can do it."


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