Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How I've Dealt With Panic

Okay, speaking of cleaning house, I should be doing that very thing right now since I just got a text a few hours ago from our landlord reminding me that he's going to start advertising/showing our house this FRIDAY, and since my days keep coming and going with nary a block of time for such a project as de-junking my entire house (and heaven knows I am such an all-or-nothing type, so to do things in little bites here and there takes more mental effort for me than an entire uninterrupted day of work), doing so should really be the order of things while I have a whopping one hour left of Rachael at preschool. (After which I HAVE to go to the grocery store for milk and teacher appreciation gift cards ((because I'm creative and thoughtful like that)), and then to the post office and bank to deposit money and pay checks that may or may not be late, and then to pick up Kate from school and take her to the dermatologist to see if the pigment in her leg skin is ever going to come back, and then to the church for the last half of the cub scout meeting I am co-leading, and then back home to warm up some leftovers and spend the evening wielding the whip of self-discipline and motivation (on both myself and my children) so that all homework, chores, and music practice are done before I become catatonic around 9pm. (Brandon just called. He won't be home until about 8:30.)

And since I already know my brain will be mush by 9pm because of the FOUR misplaced cell phone calls that began at 5:37am this morning from the Los Angeles area (cutting off both my sound machine app AND my sleep), I feel compelled to force myself to see what I can write about how I've dealt with panic and anxiety in the last few years while I have this short little snippet of time since I keep putting it off. (This is for those who care and need to know that other "normal" people struggle with the same thing. I know, "normal" is relative . . .) And I also feel like I should write about it now because I kinda sorta had another tiny one a couple of nights ago. (Last time was last July.)

So here we go.

After I had my big fake heart attack at the restaurant on our Valentine's Day date in 2011, I had every test known to mankind over a two day stay in the hospital, and while they did find a hole in my heart (and tried to attribute what had happened to that since they had nothing else), it wasn't until I had more thorough evaluations by cardiologists over the next few weeks that I found there really was nothing wrong with my heart at all. Yes, the hole in the heart was still there, but even that wasn't a big deal after a very close (probe down my throat close) look. Apparently, 20% of the population has this kind of hole in the heart and it poses no problem whatsoever, and the cardiologists were definitive about it not causing the symptoms I experienced that night.

Once the world of medicine declared me perfectly well, I was left to figure out what in the heck had happened. Tingling, numbness, heart racing, jaw tightening, nausea, faintness--and the heart racing went on for HOURS. It actually came and went for two weeks straight until all my tests finally came back negative. Sometime during those two weeks I started googling about my symptoms and first read about panic attacks. THAT WAS IT! I was sure of it. I'm still shocked that none of the hospital staff--let alone the two cardiologists I saw--suggested this as a possibility. They seemed genuinely stumped. I find this so interesting since one of the sites I found suggested that up to 90% of people who come into the ER thinking they are having a heart attack are actually having a panic attack.

So after googling my brains out and talking to other people who also experienced panic/anxiety, I felt certain that is what was going on and I started to get back on track immediately. During the two week time I was home from the hospital and still waiting on the results of all the tests, I was having a hard time leaving the house. It wasn't until I started reading about panic and how some people become either complete hypochondriacs or totally agoraphobic (or BOTH) that I recognized the potential that was there and knew I had to nip it in the bud IMMEDIATELY! I am a social person. Yes, I need to be in my man cave for a few hours every day, but I also thrive on being with people and having an active life outside of my house, so the thought of having panic attacks every time I left my house was SO UNACCEPTABLE in my mind. And yet, until I got all those medical test results back and started seriously considering panic as the source of my physical symptoms, that's exactly what was happening.

The first time I left my house after "the incident" was for Will's 4th grade play. I took my dear neighbor, Jen, with me since she had been looking out for me through this whole process, and I also took some Xanax "just in case" and ended up taking it in the middle of the play because I was starting to freak out. (I only took Xanax twice. That was the last time.)

I remember the first time I left the house ALONE. It was maybe a week and a half out of the hospital and I took Rachael to Kneaders for lunch. By this time, I was fully considering panic as the source of what had happened and had read about people becoming agoraphobic, so I was fighting hard not to have that happen to me. I was fighting back the feelings of panic the entire time we were out of the house, but I just kept telling myself, "You are fine. Deep breaths. There's nothing physically wrong with you. You are fine." It was a tough hour, feeling like I could barely make it through a lunch date with my young daughter, but I was determined to not let it get the best of me.

Exactly two weeks after our horrible dinner date, we went on another dinner date with Brandon's cousin and husband. Because it was the exact same circumstance in which I had had that first big panic attack I felt myself really struggling not to have another one. That was probably one of the most miserable nights of my life actually. I have never tried so hard in my life to act and appear "normal" while fighting against a desperate feeling of panic roiling inside of me. It was just there, bubbling below the surface, the entire night. But again, I fought it down, and continued to force myself out of my comfort zone over and over again until it became easier and easier and then completely went away.

Brandon was a huge help. As long as he was there to calmly tell me I was fine, nothing was wrong with me physically, just breathe, and I could feel the symptoms subsiding simply talking to him--then I could realistically convince myself that it was, in fact, all in my head. That's a hard thing to tell yourself when you're having physical symptoms, and for me, the panic very much presents itself with a feeling of impending doom and yes, DEATH.

I kind of just chose to ignore it after that, or should I say minimize it's influence in my life. And it completely left me for the most part. I had one really bad night last June after driving cross country alone with my four kids to California. (Shortly after doing the same thing all the way to Iowa.) I remember calling Brandon in the middle of the night from his parents house after struggling against the symptoms for several hours, and once I heard his voice and his reassurances that I was just fine, I could feel the symptoms begin to subside again and, knowing it truly wasn't physical, finally went to sleep.

It happened one other time last July after a fun but stressful week of getting ready for and then going to church girls camp with Kate where 3 of us cooked for 300 people for 3 days. (Lots of threes.) I was just lying on the couch watching a movie with the kids and my heart started racing out of the blue. I was starting to see a pattern.

According to several things I read there are various triggers and many ways that panic presents itself. For me, the initial attack was definitely a combination of factors: I don't drink much caffeine, and I had just sucked down a couple of diet cokes on an empty stomach while waiting for dinner. (Caffeine can be a trigger for some.) We were just coming off what was a very extended period of pretty extreme emotional and physical stress for me (too long to explain, but moving from California to Utah where we had no family or connections close by was certainly part of the equation) and then we were talking about my sister's cancer diagnosis at the time my heart started actually racing. After reading tons and tons of stuff about panic, I realized that prolonged periods of stress and unexpressed emotions are two big triggers for many people. That, and not feeling a sense of control. Also too long (and private) of a story to share here, but I had MAJOR unexpressed emotions regarding my sister (and feeling totally unable to control what was happening) and, like I said, we'd just come off a fairly stressful year in our family's life and for me personally as well. A perfect storm you could say.

The two other times it happened last summer were also both stressful times (yes, fun can be stressful), but those instance were small potatoes compared to what happened that first night.

And then, just two nights ago I went to bed feeling "not quite right" and woke up around 4am feeling like I was going to blow. Don't know how else to describe it really-- kind of nauseous and like maybe I wouldn't be able to breathe soon. But as soon as I woke up Brandon and he reminded me about my previous panic experiences, I calmed right down and went back to sleep. It makes sense. I'm just coming off two funerals and am in the middle of end-of-school-year craziness and preparing to move. (Kind of a stressful time!) But honestly? Overall, my life is great and I feel fine. This is just my body's way of dealing with stressful times. I get that now, and I just do what I can to minimize the stress in my life and extinguish the panic when it tries to rear it's ugly head. (And for me, that means embracing what I'm feeling, acknowledging it's panic and not something physical, breathing deeply, and just waiting patiently for it to go away.)

Depression, anxiety, panic--they are all closely related and I fight them all. And I fight HARD because they all make me MAD more than anything, and anger is a good motivator when you don't want to let something take over your life. But it looks like I will probably be fighting it my entire life. That's okay.
Everybody has something, right? And I'll still take my life and my measly challenges over most other people's any day of the week.

Maybe at some point I will feel the need for medication. I certainly don't look down on anyone who chooses to use medication for any or all of these "conditions", but I don't like the thought of taking medication for anything, really. It makes me feel dependent. It may be pride (and a little bit of paranoia--what if there was some wide scale calamity and I couldn't get my meds from the pharmacy? Ahhhh!) but as long as I can, I will resist that route.

So far, what has worked for me are the things I have already mentioned in dealing with my self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Love how I'm self-diagnosing all of this stuff. Still haven't ever seen a mental health professional for any of this stuff. Either that suggests I'm not doing that bad, or I'm just really really prideful and too independent for my own good. You know, the kind that will end up with a tumor the size of a grapefruit in my breast because I didn't think it was a big enough deal to go to the doctor . . .)

In any case, I do just fine as long as I get decent sleep, do my cardio, get my sunshine, take my vitamins, eat my veggies (avoid too much sugar), simplify stuff and activities, cultivate optimism, hug and squeeze my favorite people a lot, get creative (for me, photography and cooking), pray and meditate, sort things out through writing, express gratitude, volunteer, get out in nature, socialize with people face to face (as opposed to FaceBOOK), and otherwise practice happiness. . . these are my drugs of choice. (And when I get too much going on in my life and let too many of these things start to slip, I immediately feel the effects.)

I should actually do another post with more of those specifics, but I'm glad to at least get this part of the story down for now. Time to pick up Rachael from preschool! Feel free to share your own struggles and success stories with me regarding depression, panic, or anxiety. (Private email if you prefer:

Thanks for listening!


  1. Sounds like a pretty familiar deal for me with my experience with it. Very similar. It comes on the same way, I work with it the same way, prevent it the same way. Except did you see how many things you listed as your drugs of choice? ;) That's a lot we try to do right there to keep ourselves in balance! I too have found I have to not let it get me by accepting it, making space for it, and waiting for it to leave. Grrr. No fun. But like you said, could be a lot worse. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I definitely don't try to take all of those "drugs" every day or at once. It's just my list of helpful options. Interesting to hear how you've had such a similar experience. Wish we had some reason to get together and talk about it!! (Coming to Utah anytime soon? :D)


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