A loved one recently told me she wasn’t sure if she had ever had a panic attack. She has not. If she had, she’d know it.
Panic attacks come suddenly and unexpectantly. They are terrifying. You feel like you are dying. One person described it like falling off a cliff headed to certain doom. I sometimes have felt like I’m sinking into blackness in a powerless one-man submarine.
Your palms sweat, your heart palpitates, your breath becomes rapid and shallow, you feel lightheaded, you’re afraid you’ll faint and collapse, the world is spinning, you can’t see straight – terror engulfs you.
I have always had fears. Some of my earliest memories are of being afraid – afraid of choking, afraid of being abandoned, afraid of dying, and just afraid. When I was a teenager, I had periodic panic attacks but I didn’t know what they were. I got through them by instinctively breathing deeply and repeating the mantra: “Relax … relax … relax.”
I think I was 17 – a junior in high school – when I had a glorious, mystical religious experience. (My oldest son committed suicide when he was a junior in high school – just a coincidence?) All my panic melted away. I was cured.
Except I wasn’t, because when Elliott killed himself, the panic came back with a vengeance. I had no idea what was happening. I thought I was having a heart attack. After a number of doctor visits, a kindly physician suggested therapy. Then it hit me – this is primarily a psychological problem. (There are some cardiac problems that can cause panic attacks, so those should always be ruled out.)
Sometimes, I am shocked awake in the middle of the night by panic, leap out of bed, pull on my clothes, and bolt outside, pacing up and down until the feeling begins to fade.
Several things have helped me over the years. Maybe they will help you.
- I try to remind myself that a panic attack will not kill me. It will pass, usually in 5 or 10 minutes (although it feels like 6 months). I tell myself, “This is a panic attack. You are not dying. This will pass.”
- For me (everyone is different), I have to move during a panic attack – pace, walk, get some fresh air – because panic brings on feelings of claustrophobia.
- Learn mindfulness and meditation with deep breathing techniques. There’s a ton of free stuff on line and it really helps. I try to practice some form of prayerful meditation and mindfulness daily, not just when I’m afraid.
- I try to remind myself that panic attacks are really a gift. They are like the steam valve on a pressure cooker. Without them, I’d explode. For some deep-seated reasons, I have a lot of fear bottled up inside. It has to come out. Rather than fight against the rip-current of fear, I try to tell myself to go with the flow, to let it be.
- Talk therapy is vital. Meeting regularly with a trained therapist to uncover the roots and causes of the fears and phobias is the only path I know of that leads to a real cure. I put off therapy for a long time because I couldn’t afford it until I realized I couldn’t afford to be without it. I’d rather go without eating than go without therapy.
- Diet and exercise are important – healthful foods, organic, locally sourced fruits and vegetables, avoiding alcohol, and moving are indispensible. Get up and get out. Walk. Hike. Ice skate. Jog. Chop some wood.
- I’m reluctant to mention medication because it is vastly over-used. Many non-psychiatrist physicians are, in my opinion, far too eager to throw pills at you. They all have side effects, and some medications only cover the symptoms. That said, however, with the guidance of a good psychiatrist, there are some medications that can help us cope enough so that we’re able to work on the underlying issues with our therapists.
- Remember, you’re not alone. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with you. You’re not damaged beyond repair. The panic you experience has nothing to do with you being weak, sinful, punished, or lacking faith. God likes you just the way you are. We’re in this together. Trust me, it gets better.