A Guide to Stopping Panic Attacks in Their Tracks
There’s a lot of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in this. My wife said those two words should be eliminated from the dictionary so nobody can talk about themselves. I truly don’t like to talk about myself so although this is about my experience with panic attacks, I’ve written this to show how you can either purge panic attacks completely or at least limit how frequently they occur.
What a panic attack feels like is difficult to describe. Some people have asked, "Is it like the moment before you are about to make a public speech?" Well, no, it isn’t. That’s more the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling. It's more like the moment before jumping out of an airplane. Although I’ve never done this, I can imagine the paralyzing fear I would experience on my first skydiving jump, very unsure if the parachute is going to open. Panic attacks are a little like that.
The big difference, though, is that if you are skydiving, you're made aware of the fear about to envelop you well in advance. With a panic attack, you don’t have any warning. They can happen anytime, anywhere, and believe me, they’re the most hideous experience ever.
After suffering through this nightmare for a very long time, I've recently gotten past it. I thought that by sharing my experience, it may help you get past yours too, if you're in the throes of these damn awful things.
Think You're the Only One With Panic Attacks?
No, you're not alone. According to MentalHealth.org, an estimated 2-3% of people across the US and Europe suffer from frequent panic attacks.
The Beginning of My Panic Attacks
A Brief Encounter
About six years ago, I drove my wife to an out-of-town dermatologist. No big deal here. After waiting in the car for about 15 minutes, I walked down the road to grab a newspaper to read while I was waiting for her.
As I waited behind another customer to pay for the newspaper, I suddenly felt a blackness appear over me, like I was fainting, and I felt slightly weak at the knees. Luckily, that was it. The whole thing probably lasted about three seconds. I didn’t keel over, and although I felt a little clammy, I recovered in a minute or two as I walked back to the car.
I did think about this moment for awhile because fainting spells that happen out of the blue bring out all the worst thoughts about yourself. Was that a mild heart attack? Was it a brain tumour revealing itself? This all sounds ridiculous for such a minor event, I know, but I just wanted to know the cause. Eventually, I just put it down to a fairly hot day since I don’t suffer from any health problems.
My First Panic Attack
Then a few days later, I went into our local supermarket, which is a very large affair, and halfway through, all of a sudden, I felt trapped. My heart started beating out of my chest, and I dropped my basket of stuff and raced for the doors.
I jumped in my car with my heart pounding as though I had run a marathon, wondering what on earth that was all about but not realising that I had just experienced my first panic attack.
This Became a Pattern
I soon found that I would get nervous just driving around, and I loved driving. I guess my brain associated driving with going to the supermarket, a place it perceived to be dangerous, hence the driving nerves. A few weeks later, I told myself, "Enough is enough." So I learnt self-control techniques to prevent these attacks, but they never went away; I just felt incredibly uncomfortable in places I was trapped in, such as supermarkets, and even worse, traffic holdups. Any sign of a holdup ahead and I’d deviate quickly, opting to take a much longer way home rather than feel like I was trapped.
All of this carried on for years. Most days, I would wake with a pit in my stomach knowing that as soon as I left the house, I'd be on edge all day. Not nice at all. I then found that if I went out with friends or to a café that I was only good for an hour at most before I’d be making an excuse to go home again.
Fortunately I’ve got a very understanding wife. Surprisingly, for the first three years we were together, I never told her about any of this, and she never suspected anything about all this.
Panic Attack or Anxiety? What's the Difference?
Although the two are often confused, they are two completely different things. Panic attacks are sudden onsets of extreme fear, usually with no apparent trigger, while anxiety is fear or worry that is usually associated with a specific place or situation.
Searching for an Explanation
Wondering if anybody had suffered what I had just suffered, I turned to the net, and I found lots of cases. One lady in the UK told a story of how her anxiety caused her to send another lady’s shopping trolley flying down the aisle so she could get through—with what she thought was just a gentle push.
The energy that comes with these attacks have been likened to cases of "superhuman" feats. For instance, a car has turned on its side with someone trapped inside, and a passerby, in horror, manages to right the car on their own, which would be impossible under any other circumstance.
This energy has also been described as an "out-of-body experience." This isn’t to be confused with people seeing themselves from a different location, but it’s an odd and unpleasant experience. What it is—well, in my experience anyway—is where you seem to see things from a point of view somewhere over the top of your body. Instead of seeing from two eyes as you normally do, you see from slightly above your head. Your vision also seems to narrow so that it's like you're looking into a tunnel ahead.
All of these experiences are associated with the ‘Flight or Flight’ response which we all have inside us, but most never experience it in this manner. It goes right back to when it was necessary 100,000 years ago when you turned the corner to be confronted by a giant sabre tooth tiger. So the flight or fight swung into action. I guess the ‘out of body experience’ with the eyes seeming to see above you was one reaction and of course adrenaline surges through your body in case you need it to fight, or, to run faster than you’ve ever run in your life before (like me careering through the supermarket at top speed). The heart beating faster, of course, is to pump blood through your body to activate your muscles.
So you can see how all these responses fall into place. Only problem is today, is that we’re very unlikely to ever meet that big cat, so, these fight or flight experiences out of the blue are just incredibly unnecessary.
I then discovered through reading about these panic attacks about a thing called the amygdala. The amygdala is a small almond shaped piece of the brain that is the number one part of the brain to process fear. Although I learnt to loathe my amygdala, you can’t question the brilliance of it and the supersonic speed in which it operates. As soon as the amygdala senses fear it sends signals to all parts of your body to react immediately.
But I also learnt that to save your brain time, the amygdala has a memory. So, for example, in my situation, when trying to walk calmly into a supermarket, the amygdala would be saying to my brain “ Hey, we’ve been here before, it’s a scary place, react accordingly.” So even though I might have calmed myself down prior to walking through the supermarket doors, as soon as I was inside, fear would take hold.That's the amygdala actually overcoming through memory all your calming thoughts. The amygdala's a tough nut to crack.
As the amygdala's the single most important part of the puzzle in panic attacks I actually wondered if it was possible to have it removed. There's little evidence of it happening in humans, but they have removed the amygdala from rats and the result has been that the rat is no longer vaguely fearful of a cat. Problem is that the amygdala also makes many important decisions and forms a lot of the emotions in the brain, so removal just to rid yourself of panic attacks isn't an option.
So, the plan was to try and beat the amygdala at its own game. That involves a lot of what’s known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or, CBT as it’s known. So because my amygdala had memorised what it considered bad situations, I had to try and reverse these by saying once I was inside a supermarket, everything’s fine here, just relax, there’s no danger and repeat and repeat and repeat. After about six months although the anxiety would repeat from time to time, it had worked sufficiently that there was never a temptation to run.
I must break in here and say as a guy, that all of this sounds rather pathetic and weak, and that was probably why I never told my wife anything about what was going on for three years. She never guessed because on the outside you can sound just fine. You can share jokes and have a conversation as normal, answer questions, ask questions but at the same time you really just want to be alone to analyse what’s going on at that moment to get over it.
The irony about all this too is that before all this happened to me, I have a stepson who stayed with us for a year because he couldn’t work due to anxiety and panic attacks. I constantly said to my wife ‘ Tell him it’s all in his head.” What a stupid cliche this is. Of course it’s in his head and I had absolutely no idea what he was going through until I got panic attacks myself. Karma at it’s best, I guess.
Where the amygdala sits
Therapists and Medication
Although I considered a therapist I never went to see one. I just thought i'd like to get rid of these on my own, thinking it wouldn't take too long, no matter how agonising it was. Also though, I thought a therapist would be a waste of time and money unless the therapist had actually suffered panic attacks themself. I just mean that they truly wouldn't understand what was going on. I have read where they prescribe CBT as their number one cure but it has had mixed results as it did with me, prescribing myself to this therapy.
As for medication, a couple of years ago I gave in and went to my doctor and asked him to prescribe a dose of Diazepam. I’d never had these in my life but I just couldn’t take the daily grind of it all any longer. Well Diazepam worked. For the first time in years when I went out I felt just like every other calm person. My theory was that I’d take one every day for ten days and after that time I’d stop because my brain would be so used to being normal that I wouldn’t have to take them anymore.
Well I was wrong. The eleventh day without them was hell like it had always been. But, I didn’t want to get hooked on these things and found that just having one in my pocket was generally enough to get through the day normally just knowing if an attack came on, bang, it would be gone wherever I was. I also found that if I did have an attack (by the way, by this time any attack was minor, just uncomfortable) just putting a Diazepam in my mouth was pretty much instant relief, even though, medically they take about an hour to have an effect. So a sugar pill could probably work just as well.
I then discovered CBD. CBD ( Cannabidiol) is a cannabis medication that is used now everywhere (in a lot of places it’s still illegal). It’s an oil that you take a few drops under your tongue and it’s having transformational effects on people that have chronic pain and seizures and anxiety. I know cannabis because as a kid I smoked a bit of it but this has absolutely none of the highs that ordinary cannabis has. There is no ‘high’ effect at all. It works quite quickly and just calms you down. Don’t worry, you can still drive or work absolutely normally. It’s just a natural alternative to medication like Diazepam. Don’t get confused with Hemp oil. Hemp oil is sold all over Amazon offering the same cure. It doesn’t. Hemp oil is to spread on food etc, it is not slightly medicinal. Amazon won’t allow vendors to sell CBD oil on their site, but there’s plenty available on different sites on Google. It’s expensive for only a small bottle but will last you a month or two. If you do want to try it get a strong dose like 1500mg, minimum for any effect.
Video Interview with Professor Katherine Shear. Professor of Psychology at Columbia University
Professor Shear makes some interesting comments here:
- Their research believes that panic attacks are brought on by a slight bodily sensation. That goes back to the idea that you may be about to pass out in a public place. She goes on to say that people that get panic attacks are much more sensitive to inner body sensations and this could well be the trigger. Perhaps you fel a slight heart palpitation, whereas others don't.
- So this body sensation that the person about to suffer the panic attack feels causes a catastrophic misinterpretation of what is actually likely to be a very minor event.
- Professor Shear also says that people with panic attacks suffer from a phobia of their own bodily sensations. They treat this like any phobia. So to treat a phobia where people are terrified of cats for example, they treat it by confronting cats. With panic attacks they treat it by provoking body sensations by, for example, making a person run on the spot until until their heart is beating much faster than normal.
Breathing, Meditation, Identifying Objects
Look up how to control panic attacks and the most familiar solution is breathing. Generally they say take one deep breath, hold it, count to four or six and slowly release. Well I've got to say that this never worked well for me. The only breathing which had quite a good effect was to breathe in and out the same way when I was a smoker about ten years ago. So, I'd pretend I was having a cigarette by raising it to my lips, sucking the breathe in, holding it in my lungs then releasing it. Probably exactly the same thing but it gave me something more to think about.
Another relaxation move suggested is meditation. As a 20 year old I studied meditation for awhile and have my own Indian derived mantra. Meditation is a matter of sitting quietly by yourself, closing your eyes and repeating a mantra over and over in sync with your breathing until your breathing gets slower and slower. 'Om' is a well known mantra that you can use. If you do it properly after about ten minutes you'll feel your mind slowly sinking down until it appears to be around your chest. Quite an extraordinary feeling and not in the least unsettling. Strangely you can remain in this state while you hear a telephone ring, or, a bus drive past and it won't disturb you. But I never found meditation worked for me during a panic attack. It takes too long and you've got so much chatter going on in your head that, for me anyway, it just took too long to calm down.
One instant relief I got in an attack was to immediately identify to myself as fast as I could, everything surrounding me and name them in my head as fast as I could: Girl wearing red scarf, sign saying don't walk, lamppost, man with hat, boy with white socks, window with shadow on the top left, if you get the picture, but go as fast as you can and if you run out repeat. I guarantee within about a minute you will have taken back control from the attack.
After some time having these attacks I became fairly certain that I was being controlled by an evil spirit. After doing some research on panic attacks, I found I wasn't alone with that thought. I actually went through everyone I could think of that had passed on and that I might have made an enemy of. That's the control these attacks can have on you.
Although I don't think thats true now, it is important to be able to visualise your panic attack as a person or animal. Therapists will tell you that it's important to embrace your attack instead of fighting it. I don't agree. I've tried that and what works for me a lot better is identifying it (in my case it's just a small animate thing on legs that I can visualise kicking and thumping it outside my body until its a wreck on the pavement.
I saw a story in our local paper recently with a guy going through all of this who is an illustrator. He had written a comic type book about it where his attack was a monkey. One of the last illustrations was the monkey running away on fire. So he must have come to the same realisation that it's best to fight your attack. Funny thing was about this review is that he'd told the reviewer he'd much rather they emailed him than meet him face to face. We all know that feeling.
David and Goliath
So following on from fighting your attack (attacker) I woke up one morning and decided that if I was going to enjoy life again that these attacks had to stop for good. So I thought back to when I was about 20 years old and had a bout of depression. It went on for about a year and resulted in me going to the doctor with severe stomach cramps, thinking I had an ulcer. I didn't as it turned out but the cramps were so painful and i realised that it was likely that it was the depression I had all the time. For the first time I told my parents about it and there reaction was as though I hadn't told them. They never mentioned it again. It was as though it had never been raised. I guess I was a little shocked at this at the time but it was likely a good reaction as I became determined to beat it. This I did and have never had a bout of depression ever again as that's a horrible place to be and I never wanted to go back there.
About a decade ago, I gave up a lifetime of smoking. But I didn't give it completely up for a couple of years. Instead for two years I never had a cigarette before 8.30pm. My wife smoked and we could go anywhere, in the car, to a cafe and she's smoke but for the two years I did this I was never once tempted to have a cigarette before 8.30. We both eventually gave it completely up but thinking back to those situations in my life it was easy to see in layman's terms how the brain works and how you can quite easily train it.
So putting those past events into action on my panic attacks worked for me. I made up my mind that I was David and my panic attack/er was Goliath. So, I was determined to beat Goliath. I did this by repeating as soon as I left the house that day over and over that Goliath you are never going to enter my body again. I repeated it and swore at him until I got tired of it. And if there was a slight shiver of an attack I'd go hard at him again, telling him to get out and never ever come back. This initially seemed to work but man it was tiring. I seemed to be spending the whole day fighting Goliath. I gave in. This wasn't the way.
Your enemy is your friend
Well if you've had or having these attacks you'll know how exhausting they are. I finally caved in and strangely the relief came naturally.
So when I had an attack instead of treating the attack/er as an enemy I accepted it as a friend. I used soothing words to it. "Come right in, feel at home." "Not feeling so good today?" "A little edgy today" "Hey calm down, you'll be right in a minute or two."
And words to the effect that you have a friend in a little distress and it's up to you to calm your friend down.
This worked like a charm and nothing has worked faster. Truly within minutes your attack isn't noticeable any longer and you've taken control of the whole thing.
This will work in any situation, but I have found that if I feel one coming on talking to people in a crowded room I have to excuse myself for ten minutes. Go outside and talk to this attack and then when I've got control back walk back inside. For me anyway, it's not possible to try and calm things down while trying to concentrate on a conversation.
This was all six months ago now. No medication in all that time and I now very rarely have an attack. It's all a matter of fighting fire with fire. But once you've practised and practised this method I can assure you of ridding these awful attacks which consume you, forever.
Dare - A book by Barry McDonagh
I only mention this book because in desperation I put a feeler out on the net a few years ago and someone suggested it. It's the only book I've read on the subject of panic attacks and when you read it you know McDonagh has genuinely suffered badly in the past with them and got through.
It gave me quite a few pointers ( describing details around me as fast as I can) and is a good guide to get you through. If anything, you'll know you're not the only one in the world suffering these hideous attacks.
He has had over 900 positive reviews so I'm not the only one to get something out of it.
Dare by Barry McDonagh
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.