There’s been some sort of change in my mind and body lately. I don’t like it; it’s familiar, it’s been part of my life for over thirty years and I’ve been lucky to have lived without it for the past decade. But it’s come knocking again. Haven’t opened the door to let it in, but I know that it’s sitting there, waiting. Shit. I honestly never thought it would come back. Damn. Really? Ok. Gotta face it head on…
If anyone ever tells you they “think they’ve had a panic attack”, then they most certainly have not had one. There are people who use the words ‘panic attack’ in a very casual and cavalier way. That can sometimes really piss me off. Because panic attacks can rule, run and ruin your life. They aren’t just some hormonally-related hissy fit brought on by something mildly upsetting… No, a real, honest-to-goodness panic attack is a nasty thing. A horrifying experience. An experience of pure fear which, once it’s gotten into your system, can take years and years to get rid of.
With all our social connection these days, it’s not difficult to find people sharing their own experiences with panic attacks. But it wasn’t always so. Mine first came on in high school, and I can tell you firsthand that the psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors provided to me had not the least understanding of what I was experiencing. Now, it is different. But no matter whether panic attacks have been officially diagnosed or not, it hardly makes a goddam difference. Once they worm their way in, they are insidious and threaten to weaken the strongest resolve to keep them away.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about this during my life, and I have some notes to offer. But before I go on, I’d like to acknowledge that sometimes talking or even just reading about panic attacks can be very frightening in of itself to those who live – or have lived – with them. Doing so brings them back into your awareness, creating the possibility in your thoughts that they may reoccur. If you do personally know about this topic and feel some trepidation, I encourage you to come along with me in spite of the risk, because I mean to demystify this phenomenon and hopefully loosen its grip on us.
First, as I just said, if you think that you might know what a panic attack is, then honestly, you probably don’t. And second, speaking of this phenomenon as if it were one or two isolated ‘attacks’ is not at all accurate. Instead, there is a constant state in which the patient lives during which panic may descend at nearly any time. It’s this unpredictability which really makes the situation much worse. Sure, you might have identified some triggers, and you’ve developed some strategies to ride out the most intense moments of panic, but even being this self-aware is no defense against them. After three decades of having on-again, off-again panic attacks I have come to see some trends, which helps, but unfortunately there is a mystical element to these fits of horror that for the most part defies methodical inquiry.
One thing I know is that ultimately, panic first enters into someone’s life when there is some sort of threshold of stress reached; a divorce in the family, peer pressure, lack of self worth, getting too far behind in school or work…. And really, what all of that translates to is that you have lost control over things in your life… I think that feeling as if you have no control over your own life – whether consciously or unconsciously – is the soil from which panic attacks grow.
So, you’ve got this environment or event which ramps up your stress to a critical level, and then one day, some silly, seemingly unrelated thing (loud noises, chaotic surroundings, all eyes on you, etc.) will trigger it and BOOM! You’ve had your first panic episode. Your heart is most likely beating as if you’re running top speed, your palms are cold and wet, and you are fucking scared. I mean really fucking scared. You know it’s just you, you know there’s no good reason for it, but you’re locked tight inside your private, hellish experience and you can’t begin to convey what’s going on… Plus of course you’re trying hard to hide it, oh and that’s just making it all so much more frightening… So that’s a panic attack in a nutshell. Stress drives it, then it becomes physical. It defies logic and therefore seems impossible to stop.
But there have been a few critical times in my life when they did stop. Cold. One was a situation in which I really couldn’t screw around; somehow my inner psyche overrode the panic and disabled it for a while. I’d broken my neck and was told I might not walk again if I didn’t lie there perfectly still. Ok. That’s some serious news. I felt a little pre-panicky in the beginning as I lay there pinned to the bed, but I noticed the feelings dissipated soon after. Kinda seemed like panic attacks knew they weren’t really out to paralyze me in earnest. So they took a back seat for a while. Thought that was interesting.
I also didn’t experience panic attacks during the busiest, most enjoyable time of my life as a working musician in Chicago. And I think it’s because my life was truly mine, I made my own creative choices, I was expressing myself, I was living in freedom, unhampered by rules and restrictions – and also feeling very much in control of my destiny. (Ha!)
And as a mother and soon after the owner of a nightclub, I was just too busy for panic. And I was enjoying a good amount of control over my immediate environment. No problem there. But how about when my husband asked for a divorce? That might seem just the perfect time for some good old-fashioned panic attacks, right? But not for me – cuz the real life shit was hitting the fan and I had a child to take care of – I had to take care of bidness for real. Again, the panic attacks politely deferred for a bit as it seemed I had much more pressing things to attend to. So I did the things I had to, and eventually, the dust settled…
So here I am. Couple years down the line. Not really digging the older version of myself that I see in the mirror, certainly not digging that I’ve let myself add on an extra 30 pounds, and as I stand back and look around, I realize that my life is really quiet. In the past it was the chaos, coupled with a loss of control that zapped me with panic. I think the pre-panic cocktail is a bit different these days… the physical sensations are familiar, but they’re not brought on by chaos and confusions these days…. Rather what gives me a chilling, pre-panicky sensation is the awareness of a vast, unending emptiness that seems to stretch out before me… Yes, I’m feeling that familiar, almost out of body sort of buzzing energy – I reach to touch something, but it doesn’t feel like I’m in my arm… it’s someone else’s… oh, I remember this part… Why is this happening now? I ask myself. Then I sit to think in earnest. Think. What’s the same this time? And – just what is different?
Got it. What’s the same as previous episodes? Loss of control (weight gain, aging, arthritis getting worse in hands) and the sense of falling behind (I have no friends here, not creating these days, not keeping up with the world outside). So now, what is exactly different than before? There’s no chaos around me to trigger me into a panic, but rather… there’s so much of… nothing. So much quiet. So much space, so much time alone. This is the new stressor. Can you imagine? Finally alone with myself and I am driven to panic. ! Come on, Elizabeth, that ain’t right. You’re no dummie, you know there are a couple of things you can do. Yeah, you’ve had Yoga on your list, and yeah, it’ll help, but for now we’ve got an emergency situation – it’s time to get proactive about my panic.
So I sit on the couch facing one tall, straight pine tree down the hill. I align myself with the tree and begin to ground myself, imagining roots going down, down… breathing in through the top of my head, washing all the chatter aside with simple, specific tasks…. “I breathe in abundance, I breathe out peace..” I don’t plan the words, they just seemed the right ones. I continue this for several minutes. Yes, I notice that I feel better. I’m more in my body now. In fact, this is comforting. I knew it would be. Stop thinking, Elizabeth, keep doing that abundance peace thing… I bring my wandering mind back more than a few times, til I feel it again. Not the way I have in years past, but it’s there. Just enough of it to remind myself that it is all ok. In spite of how goddam scary this world seems to me, yes, it is ok. I am supported. Breathe in, and out….
It’s a lonely thing to have panic attacks. You can’t just tell anyone, and you can’t explain them, because even you yourself know they’re unreasonable. I once sat on my bed, my mom right beside me, and I physically felt as if I were free-falling down an elevator shaft. I mean literally, that’s the feeling I had in my body. I was almost surprised that my hair wasn’t being blown back, it was that convincing. And there wasn’t a thing she could do calm me. I was in a private universe of my own. Yeah, it’s really not possible to explain what it’s like. And there are many different sorts of symptoms too. Suffice to say, there’s no logic, but the experience is nonetheless terrifying and real for that person.
So, loss of control sets the stage. My advice? Try not to take things too seriously. Know that a better situation awaits you. And if you’re in the middle of panic – ride it out, keep moving – walk around – and don’t be shy about telling people. (Sometimes I worry that will make it worse – but it almost always helps. Remember, panic attacks are made worse by your having to hide them!) And if you can, when you’re still in that ‘pre’ panic mode, try doing what I did. Not sure if it would have worked for me ten years ago, but today it took the edge off. Sit still. Just give your attention to breathing in and breathing out. Try to turn down the chatter in your brain. Don’t make it about doing it any one way – the goal is to quiet your mind, to find peace, to come home.
I’m not saying that I’ve got this figured out. Seems my new personal challenge will be about learning to live in stillness, cuz that’s making me nervous. I’m in the right place. Got country all around and cute little birds at my window to keep it real and give me a laugh when I feel the fear trying to sneak up behind me… I mean to meet my new fear and transform it. Can you imagine? Getting panic attacks from, well, nothingness? First the chaos of the city overwhelmed me, now the peace of the countryside is doing the same. Interesting to say the least.
Thankfully, I know I’m not alone in my handicap:
“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” Blaise Pascal
My main efforts – and self-prescribed remedy for panic attacks these days – will be to work on being still. And quiet. Might not be easy. Will let you know my progress. This monkey is persistent, I hope I can persuade her to sit quietly beside me…