Don’t forget to breathe. Just relax. Focus. It will be okay. That is what learning how to beat panic attacks will teach you. However, it is easier said than done. I learned this fact first hand when panic attacks and anxiety silently took over my life and left me feeling lost and helpless. I eventually learned that a panic attack is an invisible acquired disability that does not care who you are, how important you or others might think you are, what you stand for, who loves you, or where you are. It will silently attack like an assassin, without notice, and leave you disarrayed and bewildered. Soon, the symptoms of anxiety might follow suit. An individual can be sitting in their car, shopping in the grocery store, at work, enjoying time with family and friends, or sitting alone. Panic attacks do not care about any of those things. Suddenly, the individual might experience being cold and hot simultaneously. As the brain puts the body and nervous system into alert mode, every breath becomes a challenge, the hands get sweaty, a lump in the throat seems to appear and to make breathing much more challenging, the legs feel like they will lose the strength in them and give out under the pressure, and all the individual might be able to think of is, taking cover to somehow find the virtual emergency exit as a rescue from the inner torture. “You are hit with a feeling of dread, and impending doom like you are going to die, go crazy, faint or lose control,” explains Dr. Tamar Chansky, a licensed psychologist, and Founder and Director of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety in Plymouth Meeting, PA.
Just over twenty-five years ago, right after receiving my bachelor’s degrees, my initial experience with panic attacks was one of the most ferocious experiences I had ever had to endure in my life, up to that point. The day it happened was a typical day, and life was pleasantly happening for me like many other days I had experienced during my life. However, on this particular day, I was cutting grass in the yard, and suddenly I began to feel intense dizziness and cold sweats. Soon, my heart began to race profusely. I had never experienced anything like it. I drank some Gatorade and sat down for a while because I thought I might have gotten overheated or dehydrated. That was not the answer because it did not provide any relief. I was sweating, but I still had cold chills. The next day, I decided to go to the doctor for a check-up concerning the matter. I told the doctor I thought I was having a heart attack or something, and I mentioned the other symptoms I had as well. He examined me but diagnosed me as being entirely healthy. I thought to myself, “That cannot be true.” From that point forward, I began a long and scary three-year battle with panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.
Psychologically, my life seemed to be spiraling out of control, to a point to where I was not too happy with my life. During that time, I did not work, nor did I leave the comforts of my home much. I spent most of my time – day and night – feeling sorry for myself and wondering how I ended up in this state of being. While I was on that downward spiral, I also wondered how I had allowed many of the exciting things I treasured in life; things that I felt were within reach, to pass me by. My life was a wreck, or so it seemed. Virtually, I felt like a failure. My parents supported me. My father gave me encouraging words to try to keep my spirits up, but each day, my thoughts would eventually override his positive words, and I would end up back in a slump. Thankfully though, with a change of mindset, continuous research to educate myself on the topic of panic attacks and anxiety, and a bit of prayer and self-determination, I was able to recover fully. Yet, so many people are not able to make a full recovery without years of medication and therapeutic treatment.
To give you an idea of what a person who experiences life under the constant attack of panic and anxiety feels, I decided that it was probably best for me to share some simple research on the topic. According to C.B. Taylor, in his article on “Panic Disorder,” the key feature of panic disorder is repeated, unanticipated panic attacks, which eventually cause individuals to evade conditions or circumstances where they think an attack might occur, and in turn, the avoidance could very well limit the individual’s daily routine and overall lifestyle. Panic attacks are characterized by a distinct moment of constant distress or anxiety, that involves some or all of the symptoms listed in the table below, which can have an immediate and impactful effect within 10 minutes of onset:
At one point or another, I basically experienced each symptom listed above during my three-year ordeal with panic disorder. Once I determined within myself that I had to find a way, somehow, to overcome the symptoms, I started thorough research on the topic to learn more about panic attacks. I figured out that many individuals who have depression also suffer from panic attacks. Also, panic disorder is linked to various invisible disabilities, like anxiety ailments. Taylor also indicated that nearly half of the individuals who have dealt with panic attacks during their lifetime will develop depression and other panic disorders, of some sort, which might cause them to misuse drugs or abuse alcohol to cope with their problems. This overcompensation can eventually lead to more damaging effects as life goes on.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), approximately 6 million adults in the United States suffer from panic disorder and recurring panic attacks, and women are affected more often than men. That is a remarkably high number. Yet, most adults suffer in silence, before getting treatment, and sometimes even after receiving treatment. When it came to the point to where I was fearful of everything, it caused me to withdraw from everyone else around me, more and more as time went along. After a while, I was afraid of being afraid. I felt shame. I felt weak and embarrassed. I felt more out of control than I did in control of my life. “Men are supposed to be vigorous and invincible,” or so goes the saying, but I clearly was not. From that point, fear took over, and eventually, living life each day became a terrifying experience. Soon, I began to panic more and I wonder when the next attack would hit me, what would it feel like, and I was curiously wondering if I was going to die. I could recall the exact place I was whenever I experienced every attack. I stored facts about each episode in my mind, and I tried to avoid all of those locations and situations. Eventually, that led me to sit in my room or lay in bed all day. I had an answer of “No” ready to use if any of my family members or friends asked me to participate in any kind of recreational or extracurricular activity. However, avoidance was the one thing I did not need because it only caused me to be more anxious and become better at making excuses instead of facing challenges.
Professional help is necessary for panic disorders. According to William R. Marchand, M.D., a psychiatrist and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, in his book “Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder: How Mindfulness and Neuroscience Can Help You Manage Your Bipolar Symptoms,” evidence shows that “Most people will probably do best with either medication and psychotherapy or psychotherapy alone.” Also, psychologist, author, and speaker, Dr. Tamar Chansky suggests that to overcome panic disorder symptoms, individuals have to learn to “crack the code” of being afraid something dreadful and tragic is going to happen to them when they have a panic attack, despite the discomfort of the symptoms. However, to overcome the horrifying feelings associated with panic disorder, Dr. Marchand recommends antidepressants (Prozac, Celexa, Paxil, Effexor, and Cymbalta) as the best medical treatment; and the use of Benzodiazepines (works immediately) to help with severe symptoms. Normally, antidepressant medications could take several weeks before they begin to work as needed. However, C.B. Taylor feels that the most effective psychotherapy treatment for panic disorder, based on his years of research on the topic, is cognitive behavior therapy. With Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, individuals are invigorated to use the symptoms that make them fearful and anxious as a significant therapeutic activity to help them get well, while in the comforts of a safe environment with a professional therapist.
As I learned while doing my own personal research years ago, for some individuals, all it takes is a simple method of retraining themselves to use slow but focused breathing. When done on a regular basis, an individual can learn how to relax by using deep breathing in a comfortable environment. For people with more severe symptoms, though, cognitive behavior therapy is recommended. Usually, these weekly sessions might extend from as little as seven hours to as much as fourteen hours, in increments of one to two hours each. Cognitive Behavior Therapy can be instrumental in helping an individual “Turn off the false alarms” that go off in their minds whenever there is a perceived threat of impending danger, instead of folding under the pressure of fear and uncertainty.
The symptoms of panic disorder are horrific to experience. However, what is worst is, living in fear, and perceiving things as a potential threat when it is not. I overcame the symptoms. I was able to get to a point in my life to where I felt in control again. I started working a full-time job, after being afraid to be around crowds or closed spaces. I got my driver’s license and bought a car, after being afraid to be on busy highways. I went back to doing outside activities, after being worried about going out in the sun because I thought it was a direct threat to my well-being. I realized fear of all those things kept me in a state of bondage. I also realized, an individual cannot live a life of freedom and happiness, and at the same time, live in constant fear that the worst is about to happen at every given moment. The healing process takes inner strength. It takes having the willingness to allow yourself to know it is okay to be uncomfortable in certain situations but also to have good mechanisms of being able to cope with whatever happens.
Reference: Psych Central – “Living With Panic Attacks” (July 16, 2017)