When I was eight or so I was watching that old Frankenstein movie, the black and white one with the great Boris Karloff. I was all alone on a dark and stormy night, or maybe my brothers and sisters were watching with me and it was a sunny afternoon. Whatever… The point is, it was a scary movie and I was totally into it. Dr. Frankenstein was well on his way to building his monster when he came upon the idea to transplant a living brain into the body of his creation. That’s when I lost it.
Suddenly I was no longer in my body; the world had shifted out of my reach. Untethered to my usual reality landmarks, my heart beat frantically. The sensation was terrifying! My mouth went dry, my breath constricted in my chest like someone was trying to choke the life out of me. I looked around, no one else seemed concerned, just a boring old movie. My mind screamed, what if my brain is taken from me? What if I wake up in someone else’s body!?
My first panic attack. Somehow I survived without telling anyone what had happened. Then it happened again a few years later when I was in high school. I was reading an article about someone who woke up to find themselves totally paralyzed. Like a ninja, the panic attacked out of nowhere! The only defense I could think of was to hold onto my dog, a sweet old Golden Retriever, who patiently let me cling to him until the shadow of death passed.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, (I kid you not, I was that naive) that I discovered a name for these episodes. By then I had come to the conclusion that I had such a vivid imagination that I actually lived what I saw or read about. Which was true, but ‘panic attack’ came closer to a working diagnosis.
The attacks came at me again, fast and furious right before I got married after my second year of grad school. This time I got my ass back into therapy and worked hard to figure out why I was losing my mind when the best thing in the world, finding a great guy and getting married, was happening to me.
It’s not easy to distill two years of psychotherapy into a sound bite but here it is: I was scared to death to grow up, be an adult and take ultimate responsibility for myself. I had chronic illness to deal with on top of other things which got in the way. Those were my issues at that time. Yours are uniquely yours and may be completely different. Psychotherapy may not be for everyone, but it helped me a great deal. I had to learn to let go and take reasonable action. Eventually the panic attacks went away and I got on with my life.
It doesn’t end there. Anxiety is like that ninja, waiting, just waiting for when you are most vulnerable. Fast forward my life. I’m in my mid-forties, I have two children, a career, a home, a good marriage and… wait for it… panic attacks. The last time it happened I didn’t go back into psychotherapy but I did talk to a specialist who assured me I was under a lot of stress. I needed to do two things: get some sleep and simplify my life where I could.
This time I learned that I had a family history of anxiety disorder (but no one talked about it!) and that meant I probably inherited a physical predisposition to anxiety. That would explain why I started having panic attacks way before the responsibilities of adulthood pressed on me.
Anxiety was not something to just get over. It was something I had to learn to live with in a healthy way. Coping was key. My doctor gave me a prescription for Xanax. That was hard. I had to get over my prejudice of anxiolitics, too. Over time I accepted that medication was not a sign of weakness, not a crutch or a substitute for non-medical interventions; it is just a tool like everything else. Eventually I was able to wean off the Xanax, but I have to say, it’s good to know it’s always there if I need it.
It takes work but since then I haven’t had any anxiety that I couldn’t eventually handle. Here are a few things I learned to do better to cope with anxiety. Maybe they will help you. I try to:
1) Manage my stress before it gets out of control. Whenever I think I have too much going on it’s time for me to let something go. No matter how much I first think it is all important, there is always something that can wait, be delegated or jettisoned altogether.
2) Use CBT to distinguish reasonable from unreasonable thoughts. If you have perfectionist, overachieving, workaholic tendencies, turning the volume down on those critical voices in your head is critical. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques in general are all about taking back control in a good, forgiving way.
3) Make good sleep a top priority. This should actually be number one. If your goal is to have a balanced, stable life, make sure you are getting enough sleep. If you have to stay up one night (it happens), get back to good sleep as soon as you can.
4) Exercise regularly and eat well too. Without a solid physical foundation we leave ourselves open to attack.
5)Start interventions when I get even a whiff that a panic attack may be lying in wait. Don’t wait until the panic already has a hold. Most of us can tell when one is building up. Have a strategic list of things to do when the panic monster tries to get in your head. Put things on the list that will engage all five senses. My list included stuff like deep breathing, telling my husband how I was feeling and just talk, play with my dog or my children, take a hot shower, play some music (didn’t matter what) and dance, keep breathing, use aromatherapy by putting a bit of essential oil on a tissue and breathing the scent in, watch a favorite old movie with happy associations.
6) Medication can be your friend. If I went through my list and a panic attack was still threatening, I took a half a Xanax. I didn’t wait until I was in full blown panic.
7) Remember this too shall pass. No matter how much a panic attack took hold, they never lasted more than fifteen minutes. It felt like an age, but it wasn’t. As long as I could keep my brain engaged enough to think, I knew I would survive.
Photo courtesy of Chop Shop Garage via Flickr