Anatomy of a Panic Attack

I have an anxiety disorder. Which means that a lot of things cause me a lot of stress, a lot of the time. Woo Hoo! At, or near, the top of the list, is being conspicuous, you know, causing a scene, being embarrassed. I used to attract as much attention as possible so that I was in control of it, and then I wasn’t afraid, but now I just try to sort of disappear. It works, most of the time, I do things that I know I can do, and generally avoid doing anything in front of people. Oddly enough, singing in church, while it still causes me discomfort, is not a major source of anxiety for me.

Let me tell you one thing that is. Other people’s stuff. Being trusted to take care of things makes me absolutely, compulsively, teeth-grindingly cautious. So my landlords went away for the weekend, and within hours of their departure, the router broke. I was online, it wouldn’t let me connect, and now I can’t even connect to it when wired in. I know, logically, that the likelihood of something I did actually causing the problem is low. I talked to a techie friend of mine who is a genius and walked me through everything step by step and told me that he’s had the same kind of router just up and die on him. I asked him outright if it was something I did that killed it, and he said no. I called my mom, all freaked out, and she reassured me that really, it isn’t that big of a deal, that routers aren’t that expensive, and reminded me of the kind of people my landlords are. (Lovely, kind, and understanding.)
But it’s going to cost time and money, and the reconfiguration of the network… not fun stuff… but stuff that I could actually do for them since they’re much busier than I am…

So, if you look objectively at this situation, it’s inconvenient, it’s frustrating, and it’s not going to be something nice to come home to tomorrow afternoon. (I’m not going to go out and buy a router without knowing what kind they want.)
But to me, the way my brain and the rest of my nervous system works, this is the end of the world.

Here’s the anatomy of a panic attack:
1. Tightness in the chest, like a weight on the sternum, slowly but steadily pressing on my ribs and lungs
2. Increased heart rate. ever pick up a mouse and feel its little heart beat? kinda like that
3. Adrenaline!!! the fight or flight response is not our friend when it loses its sense of timing. like walking down a dark alley in a city you’re not familiar with, and you hear sounds from every direction… kinda like that
4. The bottomless stomach phenomenon. when an elevator goes up really fast, and you feel almost like your organs are weightless? kinda like that.
5. IMPENDING DOOM!! every brain cell turns into a screenwriter, coming up with B-budget scripts for worst possible scenarios that no producer would make. But the brain goes “that could totally happen”, and lets the imagination make a demo reel and play it out. Over, and over, and over again.
6. The tearful phone call. This is where I call my mom, and tell her what’s going on, and she listens, and asks me if I want advice, or if I just need to talk. And she listens, and makes me feel a little better, even though the situation doesn’t change, and the thoughts still come. But she’s there, and she knows what it feels like, and she isn’t stuck in the quicksand of my catastrophic thoughts.
There’s meds too, of course. I generally have a pretty high level of anti-anxiety meds, like Clonazepam (Klonopin, Rivotril, Rivatril) and Venlafaxine (Effexor), running through my system, but in situations like this, a boost is helpful.

This is not fun stuff. It isn’t stuff that you just snap out of, though sometimes distraction is great. And there are great techniques to help ease the panic. The problem I have is that the time between “I think I’m going to have an attack” and “This is the end of the world!!” is very, very short. But every attack gives me a little insight into the warning signs, the triggers, and maybe increases the time I have to prevent the next one.

And thus ends the lesson for today, a little insight into something that not a lot of people talk about, a phenomenon that, for some of its sufferers, can be triggered just by thinking about talking about it.


~ by Trillian on 10/02/2010.

7 Responses to “Anatomy of a Panic Attack”

  1. It was nice to read what you wrote. Belive me or not I am finding out that if I look at how somone eles deals, it gives me insite to how I deal. Thank you for showing me what happends to you. After felling a lone for so long Im now seeing that Im not and there are people out there that do understand.

    Thanks again, and feel free to check out my blogs to

    • Thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment. I’m so moved by the responses I’ve been getting to this post, I really appreciate yours. I believe you, and totally agree that knowing what other people go through, and how they handle it, can help us learn about ourselves. Thank you.

  2. I also have just about everything you explained…to the T. I have a fear of taking the meds most of the time. I know that I should, but the fear of just doing it makes the attack worse.I put it off so long that when they finally kick in, I am exhausted and to the point of no return.Did this ever happen to you??

    • Absolutely. I can totally relate to the fear you describe. And the point of no return is a terrifying place. I guess for me, it got to the point where the fear of the meds was overcome by the fear of the panic attack. My doctor and I finally came up with a plan where I kept the level of anti-anxiety meds in my system pretty high, so that my attacks would be less severe. It wasn’t a long-term solution, but it helped a lot. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about some coping strategies that I’m trying to implement.
      Thank you for reading, and for your honesty, I like knowing I’m not alone.

  3. Trillian – you are so right. We can help friends and relatives with anxiety and panic attacks – a big part is being educated.

  4. Thanks for reading, and for your sympathetic comment. I think there are many people out there suffering from panic attacks who don’t realize it, and go untreated. Also, I think that there are a lot of people out there who know someone who suffers them, and have no idea how to help, as much as they want to. The idealist in me hopes that if we are honest about what we go through, and tell the people around us how to help, the comfort found there will help lessen the severity of the attacks.

  5. I like your new background.
    also – thanks for being so honest. Once I went to the ER with a panic attack I thought was a heart attack…and this was after years of successfully handling them.

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