anatomy of a panic attack

Credit: Prescott Counseling

Panic attacks, if you’ve ever had one, are not fun. You may feel like you’re going to pass out or that you’re dying. You may feel your arms or hands go numb. You may cry or shake. I’m a crier and my hands shake. This happened to me four weeks ago when I was traveling for a work event. It was very scary, I felt completely out of control of my own emotions. I had to sit down for fear of passing out.

I haven’t had many panic attacks recently but I used to have them all the time. Anxiety is a real pain like that. It will creep up on you sometimes, if you’re in a grocery store or in a mall. Or at the dentist. The triggers are different for everybody. Fear, guilt, shame and avoidance of certain situations or people can all trigger a panic attack. My therapist is really good at explaining what “flooding” means. Flooding is a concept in psychology, as Gottman describes it: “the difference between flooding and more manageable experiences of our emotions is one of magnitude. You reach the point when your thinking brain — the part that can take in gray areas, consider other sides, stay aware of the real state of affairs — is shut out. This emotional hijacking is the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive”. 

I was in a professional capacity at a work event and it wasn’t going well. I had been overwhelmed for two days. A lot of trauma had been triggered for me. Fortunately I was mostly able to keep it together until I was away from the other participants before the real panic attack kicked in. But I went into serious emotional distress in a hotel and I was alone and afraid. All I could do was call Meg. Eventually, I was able to calm my central nervous system down. But I was still feeling shaky when I got on the plane three hours later.

This the thing I have learned about having anxiety and depression – for me they’ll never go away completely. The signs and symptoms of my mental health condition are always there, under the surface. The challenge for me, is to watch them and tune in so that when I’m in a situation like that again, and I will be at some point, that I know that I can leave. Or excuse myself for a bit, or if possible, not go at all. This would have been preferable a month ago, to just not go at all, but hindsight is 20/20.

So, if you have anxiety and you can identify your triggers, pay attention to them. Give them their due weight. Don’t underestimate, like I did a few weeks ago, how much you can take. I am not judging myself for having a panic attack whereas 5 years ago I might have really beat myself up about it. Now I’m trying to learn what the antecedents or triggers are for me, how to manage them in the moment and how to build resilience going forward. I can do it and so can you. xo Janet

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