In the Age of Anxiety, Living with Panic Attacks

by on December 21, 2010 · 8 comments

in Environment, Health

If you have ever lived through a panic attack you know that it can flat scare the hell out of you. The physical symptoms, the feeling of utter dread or impending death, can leave you completely exhausted and fearful of the next attack. I don’t know if it’s the state of things in this world, the trials and tribulations of life in this this “age of anxiety”, or the stress of the holiday season but anxiety is on the rise for a lot of people.

I have been plagued by anxiety and panic attacks on and off for a big part of my life. It started when I was young and I’ve gone through periods when it was a daily battle and then times when it would totally disappear. It doesn’t please me to say that I am in an upswing, once again, and I’m having to remember the things I used to do to keep them at bay, or at least help myself get through those attacks.

There are several types of anxiety disorders; generalized anxiety (GAD), panic, obsessive compulsive (OCD) and post traumatic stress (PTSD), all of which I have been diagnosed with at one time or another, or by one doctor or another. Interestingly enough I have found that in my case the PTSD led to the OCD that led to GAD that led to the full blown panic attacks.

Definitions from the MAYO Clinic website:

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and that triggers severe physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.

Anxiety is a normal part of life. It can even be useful when it alerts us to danger. But for some people, anxiety is a persistent problem that interferes with daily activities such as work, school or sleep. This type of anxiety can disrupt relationships and enjoyment of life, and over time it can lead to health concerns and other problems.

In some cases, anxiety is a diagnosable mental health condition that requires treatment. Generalized anxiety disorder, for example, is characterized by persistent worry about major or minor concerns.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a type of anxiety disorder that’s triggered by a traumatic event. You can develop post-traumatic stress disorder when you experience or witness an event that causes intense fear, helplessness or horror.

Many people who are involved in traumatic events have a brief period of difficulty adjusting and coping. But with time and healthy coping methods, such traumatic reactions usually get better. In some cases, though, the symptoms can get worse or last for months or even years. Sometimes they may completely disrupt your life. In these cases, you may have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). With obsessive-compulsive disorder, you may realize that your obsessions aren’t reasonable, and you may try to ignore them or stop them. But that only increases your distress and anxiety. Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease your stressful feelings.

Although I could talk about each condition, right now I am going to focus on panic attacks and some of the things I’ve found that help me get through them. Panic attacks are a form of extreme anxiety, heightened by disturbing physical sensations with an overall feeling of absolute dread. You may have an overwhelming feeling that something horrible is about to happen, that you may be about to die. Panic attacks are sudden and often unexpected and can cause physical symptoms like rapid pulse and/or pounding heart, chest pain, sweating, hyperventilating or having trouble catching your breath, feeling faint, numbness, tingling and nausea, among others. The sensations are extremely alarming and the first time someone experiences a panic attack it may send them running to the emergency room thinking they are having a heart attack. It can also be a very scary situation for a loved one to witness a panic attack in someone else.

Over the years I have discovered some of the things that can trigger panic attacks for me and some signs that tell me I am vulnerable. I am most likely to have one early in the morning. A tight, burning sensation in my upper chest or shoulders indicates that I need to be careful. For a long time I thought that caffeine was a contributor and all the resources say to avoid it, but now I believe it is ANY hot drink. Also, I try to avoid hot showers in the morning, and sudden or intense physical activity. If I feel prone to an attack the best thing for me is to just keep busy, keep my hands and mind occupied. Usually, once I get past 10am I should be good for the day.

That being said, sometimes an attack can come on so fast I don’t have a chance to head it off. Below is a list of things I try to remember when I’m in the grip of it. Share these with a loved one so they won’t be so scared and can help you remember them too.

I am not crazy and I’m not going to die

This is the feeling that can send you screaming or wanting to hide in the closet. Although I’ve been through more than my fair share of panic attacks I still have to tell this to myself. In the past this was a mantra for me. And don’t cry, as much as you think it might make you feel better to let it out, it doesn’t. It affects your breathing and can increase your heart rate.

I will get through this, it will end

Most panic attacks are over in 10-15 minutes, but that few minutes can feel like an eternity, especially if you are watching the second hand on the clock seemingly run in reverse.

Breathe in, breathe out

It can be very hard to concentrate on your breathing when you feel like you can’t catch your breath but it does help. Counting your breath in, one, two, three, four and then counting the exhale the same way not only keeps you from hyperventilating but gives your mind something to focus on (besides your impending death or commitment to the nut house).

Somebody, please, talk to me

My mother suffered from panic attacks also, and we learned that we could talk each other down pretty well. Tell your partner, or whoever you may be with, that you are having a panic attack and have them talk to you about anything other than the attack. Talk about neutral things, a friend got a new puppy, a movie you want to see… Try to avoid discussion about tax cuts for millionaires, the dysfunctional Senate or the leaky roof.

Turn on the music and sing, LOUD

This was something I used to do to in the car. It is another way to distract yourself and it’s hard to sing loud and not get happy. I don’t advise country and western music for this, though. Pick something that doesn’t involve losing the truck, the girl and the dog.

Get busy doing something, anything

Physically or mentally. I find repetitive physical tasks work, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, go for a walk. Mentally, I find analytical things help me, work the crossword, solve the sudoku, decipher some computer code (all of which appease the OCD in me).

Medication can help, but there are many meds that have side effects I am not willing to deal with. It took me a long time to convince my doctor that it was easier for me to deal with the occasional attack that with all the side effects of a daily anti-depressant. However there are meds that do work for a lot of people and definitely talk to your doctor if panic attacks have become a part of your life. They can be debilitating over time and cause you to become more anxious and withdrawn from life.

Try to be good to yourself. I know, it can be hard in this age of anxiety.



{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Shane Finneran December 21, 2010 at 4:05 pm

This is an informative article with a personal touch – thanks very much, Patty. Good luck as you power through the current upswing, too.

The music- and singing-centered approach to enduring an attack is really interesting.

Also, the early-morning vulnerability period. I recently read that one fairly reliable way to treat to depression is to keep the sufferer awake into the wee hours — the sleep deprivation somehow snaps the funk, though it comes back when they rest up again. Maybe something similar goes on with panic attacks… rest recharges them for a little while, perhaps.


Patty Jones December 21, 2010 at 4:54 pm

Hmm, since becoming unemployed I have had a lot more late nights. I will have to keep track and see if there are any correlations.

My mother was the one who taught me the “turn up the music and sing” trick. She became so anxious about driving after having panic attacks on the freeway that she eventually quit driving altogether. I vowed not to let that happen to me, I could not face being dependent on someone else to drive me where I needed to go. I can still get anxious in a car, especially when someone else is driving but have not had a panic attack in the car for many years. Amen!


annagrace December 21, 2010 at 4:13 pm

What amazes me is the incredible self-discipline and will power you are able to muster to work through the worst moments. And take care of a leaking roof. Thanks Patty.

PS. Our garage is now under water…. Couldn’t quite work up the will power to take care of business…


Patty Jones December 21, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Dear, dear Anna. We are now up to 8 buckets in the back end of the house. bleh. Had to siphon water out of the light green pool before it overflowed and the water went into my daughter’s house in the back. The south forty is a lake that is 18″ deep in some spots.

As for the self-discipline… as fucked up as it sounds, practice does make it easier (as well as the 1/8mg of xanax!).


Frank Gormlie December 21, 2010 at 5:17 pm

As someone who lives with and loves one who has these panic attacks, I’ve been able to get myself trained so that at the drop of a hat, I’m able usually to start talking about non-stress related things and subject matter in order to take her mind off the “funk” – as Shane called it -.


Molly December 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm

To be able to deal with all the stresses that one experiences in today’s modern world is one of the key elements of survival. Economic oppression, coupled with experiential stresses that result in depression/ anxiety – not to mention all these goddamn rain! (oh, but we need it so) – are sufficient to weigh down all but the most hearty.

Whether it’s psychological pain from mortgage/ rent problems, job-or no job-related strains, health problems and / or medical bills, other stresses from school, family, and other external pressures then combined with the deep wounds of growing up in economically stressed families and communities, – plus the daily muck of everything from driving in the pouring rain, road rage and the dozens of insults and insensitivities of the strangers that we all move around every time the sun is up, we suffer, as humans in this society are besieged by such tremendous pressures … that some of us wish we lived in the hunter-gather days of our forebears.


Nancy December 22, 2010 at 8:25 am

Thanks for sharing this very informative article, Patty, and I’m sending on to
a couple people I know who may benefit from it.

I love the music aspect you mentioned as that sure helps me when I get down.


nunya December 22, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Thank you for sharing this. I also have them but after 30 years of searching for the right medication I found one.

This cracked me up “Pick something that doesn’t involve losing the truck, the girl and the dog.” thanks for that.


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