Like the brake and the accelerator being floored at the same time.
That’s the best definition I’ve ever seen for what panic is like. Although the duration of a panic attack can vary greatly, it typically lasts for more than 10 minutes, is one of the most distressing conditions that a person can experience, and its symptoms can closely mimic those of a heart attack. Typically, most people who have one attack will have others, and when someone has repeated attacks with no other apparent physical or emotional cause, or feels severe anxiety about having another attack, he or she is said to have panic disorder. The Ancient Greeks blamed the woodland sprite, Pan, for panic. He would follow people through the forest, causing frightening rustling noises in the bushes until the travelers would be running blindly in fear, resulting in cuts, scrapes, and contusions. Today, we know panic as “ a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort that is accompanied by at least 4 of 13 somatic or cognitive symptoms… often accompanied by a sense of imminent danger or impending doom and an urge to escape…or desire to flee from wherever the attack is occurring.” These symptoms include;
- palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
- paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations.
- chills or hot flushes
Typically what happens is you have a distressing panic attack and it scares you so much that you begin consciously or unconsciously “monitoring” for all or one of the above symptoms, and whether real or imagined you are so afraid of having another that the symptoms manifest themselves, your monitoring brain picks up on and your off to another episode of panic.
I know this because I have panic disorder. They say that we all have something to live/deal with in life and panic happens to be mine. I’ve felt what its like to die hundreds of times. Interestingly while jotting down notes to talk to the doctor about I apparently have a pattern of attacks every 5 or 6 years. I remember my first one vividly but thinking back through the years it really wasn’t the first – it was just the first one without a specific reason. For example I can remember meeting the Dean of Forestry in the University I went to while I was still in high school and I remember being so anxious and nervous during that meeting that I was unable to really listen to what he was saying to me. But, it went away when I left, which for me is the key difference to actual panic – you have a primary need to escape what situation you’re in and yet when you do the panic tells you to escape the new situation – in affect there is no escape.
My first panic attack was August of 1989. It happened the day after I rushed a friend to the hospital who had cut themselves with a razor blade and there was blood everywhere. When the Dr. asked me if I wanted to watch it get sewn up I said sure – and immediately fainted when he spread the cut open. Panic arrived the next day without any warning while I was a passenger in a car and was acute, severe, and debilitating. I remember sitting up and saying “WTF is going on!!” It felt like the brake and the accelerator inside me were being floored at the same time. It left me debilitated and worried, and I soon had another, and then another and quickly spiraled out of control. I finally sought help and through a combination of drugs and therapy I was able to recover.
For me it was particularly confusing because I usually listen to what my body and brain are telling me – for example I was once camping on the upper Allagash River in Maine with a couple of friends. The trip we had planned down the river to the take out at Allagash Village had taken a lot longer than we had planned and when we arrived it was nearly dark and spitting rain. We decided to stash the canoes there, drive back to camp, and pick them up in the morning. While walking the canoe into the underbrush I had a clear image of a wasp nest appear in my mind with the feeling of worry and upon stopping noticed that had I taken one more step forward I would have stepped on a very large wasp nest. I think these sort of things happen to us more that we think of or are conscious of and for me it was very confusing to have my brain tell me there was danger when there wasn’t any. One of the things I learned over the years was for those who suffer panic at one time in your life, usually when you were young, panic helped you in some way. I thought about that for a long time, and one night it popped into my head when it was that panic helped. I was about 5 or 6 and my parents had let me walk downtown from our house alone for the first time, a freedom that I relished and did not want to lose. Halfway through the ~ 1/2 mile walk somebody’s loose dog ran to me and began barking loudly behind me. I was terrified as the dog and I were about the same height, and I panicked. I turned around looked that dog in the eye and drawing from the primeval force within all of us I began barking at the dog and advancing towards him…the dog began to back up and I intensified my vocal tirade until he turned tail and ran, with me chasing him. Psychologically speaking I suspect that was the seed that grew into later episodes in life. The disorder also runs in families, and my maternal grandmother had it.
What to do if you have a panic attack?
Rational thought goes out the window when you are in the middle of an acute panic attack. But try to tell yourself that it can’t hurt you. Panic is characterized by racing thoughts that fuel the attack like a breeze to a forest fire and you’ll want to tell yourself that this isn’t panic – I’m dying, I’m having a stroke, call 911….but it’s panic, and it can’t hurt you. Your sympathetic nervous system, fueled by adrenaline has highjacked your parasympathetic nervous system…to get it back – breath. Concentrate — breath in (1234) hold it (1234), and let it out (1234).
Obviously if you’ve never had a panic attack before you need to get checked by a doctor to be sure that it isn’t a medical condition and be sure that you’re really not having a heart attack.
It never ceases to amaze me all the things that I do that would cause others anxiety and yet still have this disease. How is it I can race down a Class III drop in a canoe and a month later perhaps not be able to drive a car? It’s all in how you think I guess. A large percentage of alcoholic are self medicating for anxiety….and for me, a couple of drinks at night shuts down my brain so I can sleep. Benzodiazepines work well for me to get back on track when panic has thrown me off kilter.
I guess I’m writing about this because after a panic free 6 years, I had a massive one last week. I knew what it was, and that has helped me in recovering….I haven’t had a major second one..but I have had lots of little ones. The last few episodes over the years a few days of benzodiazepines put me back on track and free from panic. It’s like a reset – the panic happens and you’re off kilter…a few days on being back on kilter through the help of medication resets the brain into normalcy.
If you suffer from panic disorder know that you’re not alone – there are plenty of people that have it, and plenty of people that have it that won’t admit it. It happens to the best of us and you can recover from it and continue to do all the things you want to do.