Friday, 23 May 2014

Panic Attacks and Anxiety : A first hand account.


         This is a post I've been meaning to do for quite some time as it concerns a problem which has plagued me for the past several years. It has to do with anxiety, and more specifically, panic attacks.

         Have any of you ever suffered from anxiety or panic attacks? Hopefully this will enable you to relate in some way to what the experience is like and how I'm dealing with it. For those of you who have never suffered from either, I hope it sheds light on a topic that is so often misunderstood and rarely discussed in depth, as well as sharing with you what it is like to experience the feelings associated with this often crippling ailment.

         I experienced my first panic attack almost 9 years ago and my memory of it is still as vivid today as it was then. I had been out the previous night until late and was feeling a little groggy from it. My mate and I called on a mutual friend of ours for a strong cup of tea and a chat. After we left I suddenly began to feel unwell. I began to experience an all-over sense of nervousness that I hadn't felt before. An impending sense of fear/danger began to build but from where, I had no idea. All I knew was my heart was beginning to beat faster and my breath becoming shallower. My mind started to become unfocused and scattered, with random alarming thoughts pinging about inside, like "what the hell is going on, am I getting a heart attack?" I tried to hide it from my friend who was walking beside me but I couldn't stop the onslaught of fearful thoughts that were plaguing my mind. We walked as far as the car and got in.

         By the time we got into town I was sure I was having the onset of a heart attack. My mind raced at all the possibilities, like "is it time I called an ambulance, what if I collapse and die on the street here", etc. But I didn't want to make a scene and tried my best to carry on. By now my heart was thumping so hard and so fast in my chest I was certain I was about to die. It was the fear of this happening that made it worse. The more I thought about it the more the panic increased. I remember as we walked back to the car the feelings erupted into what I now know was a full blown panic attack. I was 20 feet from the car when suddenly my heart went into overdrive and I had to stop where I was and bend over, resting my hands on my knees. My heart felt like it was going to explode in my chest and my mind completely lost all sense of rational thought. My breathing was almost non-existent and my arms became filled with the 'pins and needles' sensation. I couldn't think, I couldn't talk, I became rooted to the spot and felt that this was it, I'm going to die
                                                      Panic attacks can make you feel like you're losing your mind

           When we got home, I sat in the couch and stared blankly at the TV. The feelings had subsided somewhat, my heart had returned to a state of relative normality but the whole experience had left its scar. I had no idea what had just happened to me but the sheer terror of it imprinted itself on my mind. I was fearful of ever experiencing it again. What if it happened again, will it be worse? Will I lose my mind? The TV screen became almost translucent, like I could almost see the atoms of the animals on it. It was a surreal feeling, almost like something out of one of the trips Johnny Depp had in Fear and Loathing. I knew then that what had happened had been extremely traumatic and I would never forget it. How right I was.

          Over the years I had several more panic attacks but one of the worst was after I graduated from college. Sitting in a lecture for an accountancy preparatory course, I had the same experience as above. But this time I wasn't on my own or with a friend. No. I was hemmed in amongst 300 strangers in a semi circle lecture theater, visible to everyone. Jesus. I suddenly realized I didn't have the comfort of the open street or the privacy of a car with which to deal with it. I had to deal with it there and then, without letting anyone know. I tried and tried to suppress the fear, the fear of getting this panic attack but suddenly my mind realized that, not only was I fighting to suppress the fear of getting a panic attack, but I was also trying to Hide the fact I was getting one from the 300 strangers surrounding me. I won't go through the motions again but the end result was I suffered another full blown panic attack despite my hard fought battle which left me shaken for some time after.

           What I didn't realize at the time was that that particular attack had left its mark. It sowed the seeds for what would later be termed 'Phobic Anxiety'. It made me fearful of ever suffering a panic attack again in an enclosed space surrounded by a large group of strangers, i.e. a lecture theater, a board meeting, even mass. It had to do with the 'trapped' sensation I felt, that I wasn't able to escape once I felt the onset of those familiar feelings of anxiety that resulted in a full blown panic attack. This was because I didn't want to create a scene. I didn't want people to know I was having a panic attack and I was fearful of either losing my mind or fainting in front them once it was full blown. That and currently still is, the problem. 
         I began to avoid these situations, as is common practice with anyone who suffers from a phobia. It went from sitting at the back of a lecture nearest the exit, in case I needed to up and leave, to missing the odd lecture when I didn't feel confident enough that I'd be able to endure it. Then I began avoid formal meetings in enclosed rooms, even sitting in amongst the throngs at mass. I had to be standing, near the door.
         It progressively got worse to the stage where I was completely avoiding any indoor crowded meetings where I felt trapped. I hadn't realized it at the time but my brain was slowly shutting me out from ever having to put myself back in that situation. These doors, as I called them, were a part of my life that were gradually being closed one by one without me being aware of it. I fought against it, trying to recapture what I once had, trying to remember what it felt like before to live without even KNOWING what the words 'Panic Attack' meant. But it was in vain. It takes a grip of you.

         Then came the straw that broke the camels back.

        I applied and got a job placement in a large company. It was my attempt to get back into the workforce, back into some kind of normality, after having spent so many years away from it as a result of these f*cking attacks. I should never have gone. I was intimidated by the size of the place, all the rules and regulations, pretty much what any normal large company is like. But to me it all seemed so daunting from the moment I arrived, like being thrown in the deep end. And then we were all led into a small conference room for our introduction. My biggest fear on my first day.

          I still remember the sound of the door closing. My heart began to race. In the middle of the room was a large semi circle table which we were all to sit around to watch our tutor. We could all see each other. My mind began to unfurl. This is the jist of what went on inside my flawed complex :
"What if I get a panic attack" I thought.. 
"Don't worry, you've got them before and they haven't killed you," I tried to reassure myself.
"But what if this one is so bad it does kill you?" my mind asked.
"It won't, damn it, just try concentrate like everyone else here" I shouted in my mind.
 "Okay.......but what if you DO get a panic attack, you've 8 hours to go before you finish work" it said...
 "Oh shit" I thought.
"..and what will you do if these 20 other strangers see you acting uncomfortably, will they notice? What if you faint? What if you lose your mind and run screaming from the room? They'll always look at you as that guy who freaked out..that is unless it gets so bad that you collapse and die from the strain on your heart. Then you won't have to worry anymore."
"That won't happen" I countered. "Panic Attacks are harmless, they can't kill you."
"But what if this time it does?" It replied.

        For three full 8 hour days I went through this continuous, unrelenting hell, battling to keep my sanity whilst attempting to concentrate on what was being taught. I continuously looked at my watch, counting down the time until our next break. 
"Only 2 hours left I thought"..."Two hours?!?" How the FUCK am I going to manage two months of this??!" my mind screamed.

         I tried repeatedly to put these thoughts to the back of my head but they would always resurface and when they did, they were twice as bad. I tried every counter-measure to try and alleviate the fear, such as sipping a bottle of ice cold water, loosening my belt to try be more comfortable, holding my hand in front of my mouth and nose to try absorb some carbon dioxide to help calm me. But it only prolonged the inevitable. 

        On only the third day, two hours in, it happened. The fear had been building for the past three days, even when I left work to go home. There was a tipping point on a cliff edge in my mind and on that second hour in it finally gave way and spilled over. The same symptoms occurred, leading to an eruption of the most savage and terrifying panic attack I had ever experienced. I couldn't think, I felt faint looking up at the tutor. My heart pounded so fast and hard you could actually see it beneath my shirt. My mind went into a spiral of unimaginable terror and thought, this is it, I'm going to die. This fucking thing is going to kill me here in front of everyone and what a scene it's going to make. I don't know how I managed it but I got to my feet and staggered towards the door.

        I closed it behind me and the fear, the thumping heart, the whole episode melted away. Just like that. The feeling of freedom and the absence of feeling trapped took over. I went outside and sat down. It had been a monumentally terrifying experience. I genuinely thought my time had come. My hands and legs were shaking uncontrollably. I couldn't think one single thought of clarity. All I knew was what I had gone through had been the worst and single most horrific thing I had ever had to face in my life. It left a very deep mental scar. It left a phobia of facing that situation every again that still stays with me to this day.

       It affected me in so many ways. I had to leave my job. I felt stressed all the time, I developed a general fear of the unknown, of what might be around the next corner. I wouldn't say I was so much a nervous wreck but I just never felt at ease or at peace with myself and the world around me. I became isolated in ways, losing interest in keeping contact with friends from college I had vowed to keep in touch with. It destroyed my confidence, my self-worth and self-esteem. I felt I couldn't work and this attack had re-affirmed it, that I wasn't capable of doing even the simplest of jobs. My opinion of myself dropped to an all time low. I became a recluse of sorts, spending hours alone in my flat, trying to figure out what to do with my life now that I had fully accepted I had this debilitating affliction, but doing nothing of mention to make anything happen. The panic attacks had simply sapped my drive and energy and turned me into a shadow of who I was. It was probably the closest one could be to feeling depressed without actually being depressed.

        Why did this happen? What are the reasons for panic attacks? I'm not a psychologist, a psychiatrist or have any medical or professional qualifications whatsoever in the human condition, but I do have my theories :

  • Panic Attacks, to me, are like a pressure cooker. Life deals us all sorts of blows, traumas and tragedies on an everyday basis. The mind absorbs each and every one of these without us realizing. The more it absorbs, the more pressure it puts on an already crowded brain. In a sense, like a pressure cooker, panic attacks are the body's way of leaving off steam to alleviate all the pressure that has built up inside. It is akin to the flight or fight response. Take for example when someone is involved in an accident. Often the shock is so profound to the person that the body and mind are unable to cope with the avalanche of signals it is trying to interpret. The classic "shock to the system".  And so the only way for the body to release all of this before it overwhelms the person is to go into a panic attack and let the shock dissipate. Then again, it's only my opinion.

  • Panic Attacks could be as a result of a trauma someone has experienced in their life or childhood. They may not realize it but it may have affected them to such an extent that it resurfaces at a later stage. Bullying, abuse, loss of loved ones, etc..these can all have a massively negative impact on us without us realizing their true extent. We simply cannot measure how the mind will react to such events and what the impact upon it is. Some people are unaffected by major tragedies whilst others are crippled by the slightest trauma. 

  • Personally, I think all negative episodes in our lives eat away at the protective shield we are born with to cope with life's difficulties. Some people are fortunate in that they can go through life relatively unscathed whilst others have had to endure severe personal traumatic events. They are at a disadvantage as their protective shield is, in a sense, like the ozone layer. Imagine the sun as the bad experience in ones life. The ozone layer absorbs harmful UV rays from the sun. The hole that is in it lets these rays through to harm the planet. In a way, the people with a protective ozone layer around them stand a far better chance of protecting themselves from the 'bad experience' in their life than the ones with the hole or holes in their own ozone layer. Again, just a theory.

  • As you can probably tell, the thought process had a lot to do with the panic attacks I suffered. I've learned that only recently it has a major impact on why they occur. But I didn't realize it at the time. My thinking influenced the outcome. Had I been able to keep control of my thoughts I might never have had one. The negativity that spreads once the mind begins to think of getting a panic attack sow the seeds for the eventual result. That is why meditation and practicing controlling your thoughts are beneficial. It helps calm the mind.

What do you think?

            Today, I am glad to say I'm in a better place. That was two to three years ago. I've a new job, a new location, house and healthy social life. I don't mean that in a boastful or trumpet tooting way at all, just relief. There are many people who unfortunately haven't reached that stage yet, but hopefully will. Having someone to talk to has been a big help too. I'm slowly starting to rebuild my confidence now back to what it was before these experiences occurred. Sometimes, you have to go to hell and back to really appreciate what you have. We take things for granted far too much these days. I still can't face into enclosed meetings, not just yet, but I know for certain that the day will come when I can sit down in amongst a crowd of strangers in a still, silent room and not give a shit about getting a panic attack. Because I'll have forgotten what it felt like. Even when that door closes.

             I really hope this article has been a help to you. If only just to let you know that if you're experiencing panic attacks, anxiety, phobias that you're NOT alone. If only one person can relate to this I'll be thrilled. For too long I never talked to anyone, I never opened up about my personal hell but hopefully with this you might see that it is therapeutic and satisfying to let people know about it. Because you never know, they might be going through the same or even worse.

         SO. In closing. I would love to hear any comments, any responses about what you think. Let me know your own story. Any questions, feel free to ask. Take care. Open that door. And enjoy life.