What Is a Panic Attack?

What is a panic attack? The Mayo Clinic says, “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” It also states, “Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.” I can attest to the fact that panic attacks are incredibly frightening and crippling. It’s more than just a “sense” of panic or nervousness. It’s completely disabling and can cause side effects such as:

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid, pounding heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
  • Numbness or tingling sensation
  • Feeling of unreality or detachment
  • Sense of impending doom or danger

As you can see, there are actual physical side effects that can come with a panic attack—things that are completely out of your control.

So what does a panic attack look like? That’s sort of a trick question because a panic attack isn’t always something that can be seen. Panic attacks are different for everyone. I have even experienced them differently. My anxiety really started getting bad after my first baby was born. I remember having several panic attacks when she was a toddler. There were times we were sitting on the couch, watching TV together, when my stomach would start cramping and my mind would start reeling, thinking about things that increased my anxiety, and I’d have a panic attack. I was conscious, but everything around me seemed to fade out and I became completely unaware of my surroundings. At least a couple of times I came out of it from my daughter saying “Mommy, Mommy” over and over again in front of my face. I’d snap out of it with no idea how long I’d been like that or how long she had been saying my name. The most frightening thing about it was knowing that she could have walked out the door and down the street, and I would have had no idea. To anyone looking on, it would have looked like I was just sitting there, watching TV, when really I was feeling incredible physical and emotional pain.

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Panic attacks, for me, have now become more physical. I generally get stomach pain, like horrible cramps that often go into my back, neck, shoulders, and I hyperventilate, sometimes to the point of barely being able to breathe and nearly blacking out/passing out. It is horrible. It is scary. It is absolute darkness and complete loneliness. You do, sometimes, feel like you’re going to die. Either that, or you’re hoping you do it’s so bad.

Sometimes I have smaller panic attacks that I’m able to get control of before they get that bad. I’ve had them at work, and no one has noticed. I even had one over the weekend. Some coworkers and I went on a little retreat/workshop together. We stopped at a grocery store to get a few things. Some of them waited in the car, but I needed to use the restroom so I went in with a couple of them. This grocery store requires masks, so I put mine on until I got to the restroom where I pulled it down. I put it up going back into the store as I walked around with the other two women. However, my stomach started hurting and it became very difficult to breathe. I kept telling myself I had to get out of there or I was going to die, but I didn’t want to be rude so I kept walking around the store with them, having a panic attack they were completely unaware of. I finally did excuse myself when they were going to buy the food we’d picked out because I knew before long I’d be on the floor, crying and completely hyperventilating.

I haven’t yet had a noticeable panic attack in public—at least as far as I know, but I fear it happening, especially when school/my job starts back up, and I’m supposed to wear a mask all day. Just thinking about having a panic attack in front of my coworkers or complete strangers is almost enough to make me have one. How would they react? What would people think and say? This is the kind of debilitating fear we live with. And right now, as people who don’t fit the mold or fit inside that perfect, tidy little box we’re expected to comply to, it is even worse. But it’s helpful to remember that there are things that can help. Breathing is huge. It’s hard to remember or do when you are having a panic attack, but if you can get even, steady, deep breaths, it can help the panic attack subside. My fiance has been so good at helping me with this. I have had at least one panic attack in his presence and at least one or two when on the phone with him, and the best thing he has done is started breathing deeply for me to hear. Each time I was able to match my breathing with his and eventually came out of the panic attack. If you see someone having a panic attack this is a good way to help. Don’t tell them to breathe, just start breathing for them to hear. Focusing on something, like an image or object, can also help.

Like always, I urge kindness and understanding. The last few years it seemed we had made progress when it comes to mental illness. The last few months, however, feels like we have gone backwards and all progress has been lost. It’s hard not to feel forgotten and uncared about when people constantly question you and things like your faith or obedience or caring about others. Mental illness, anxiety and panic attacks are real and have nothing to do with faith, obedience and it certainly does not mean you are selfish and don’t care about other people. So let’s work together to make the world aware. Let’s work together to show kindness and understanding.

What Exactly is Anxiety?

I’ve been encouraged to keep writing from people who say they have learned. So I’m going to keep writing and keep attempting to teach because I believe strongly in education and especially in educating about mental illness.

Today I write about Generalized Anxiety Disorder—an actual diagnosable condition, just like COVID-19. So what is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD? The Anxiety and Depression Association of America defines it as being “characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things”. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it also describes how sometimes with GAD “just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety. People with GAD don’t know how to stop the worry cycle and feel it is beyond their control, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants.” The Mayo Clinic adds that GAD is “difficult to control and (can) interfere with day-to-day activities”. It also describes how disabling GAD can be. It can:

  • Impair your ability to perform tasks quickly and efficiently because you have trouble concentrating
  • Take your time and focus from other activities
  • Sap your energy
  • Increase your risk of depression

GAD can also lead to or worsen physical conditions, as well, such as:

  • Digestive or bowel problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome or ulcers
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Chronic pain and illness
  • Sleep problems and insomnia
  • Heart-health issues

GAD is bad. It is hard. It can be crippling. I have experienced it. I don’t have anxiety all the time, but it is with me all the time. Often, it is triggered or worsened by certain things. It’s important to keep in mind that those triggers are different for everyone, but I’m going to share some of mine.

waiting-410328_1280First, time. Time is a huge trigger for me. Everyone I know who has GAD is triggered by being late. Most people with GAD are pretty punctual because even just the thought of being late triggers anxiety. Waiting goes along with this. If I have to wait too long past a scheduled meeting or appointment, I become anxious. Even if I see someone else having to wait, my anxiety kicks in.

Social gatherings, such as church or work parties, are a big one. I get claustrophobic staying in my house, so I do enjoying getting out, but there have been so many times I’ve nearly canceled meeting a friend for dinner or a hike or other such get together because of anxiety. Sometimes I can push through. Other times, however, I have canceled. Sometimes I’ve skipped those parties or going to church because my anxiety won. And I know—I know—it has nothing to do with me being weak or not good enough or strong enough or having enough faith, but everything to do with my diagnosed GAD.

Calling people on the phone is something else that gives me very bad anxiety. I know several other people with GAD who get triggered by making phone calls or even thinking of making a call. That’s why I love and prefer texting. “What’s the difference?” one may ask. The difference is that one triggers my anxiety and a slew of worries in my head while the other doesn’t.

There are plenty of other things that trigger my anxiety or worries I have that are always in my head, but the last one I’m going to share is having something cover my face. Most of my adult life, as far as I can remember I’ve hated, feared and panicked at having anything covering my face or part of my face. Recently, my fiance and I were playing around and he threw something over my head and I started freaking out. I think he remembered and helped me get it off. He seemed to feel bad, but I knew he didn’t mean anything, so I didn’t say anything, and we moved on. So imagine now being told that I have to wear something all the time that covers my face. I’ve had several panic attacks while wearing, or even attempting, to wear a mask. Just the thought of it makes it harder for me to breathe. So when I go out in public without a mask on, it’s not because I’m being selfish, it’s not because I don’t care about others, and it’s certainly not because I think my freedom is being taken away. It’s because I’m trying to prevent a panic attack. GAD is already crippling enough without having a panic attack every time I leave my home. Next post I’ll write about panic attacks.

I truly hope what I have written helps others learn more about anxiety and what it is, as well as things that can trigger it. And, as always, I hope what I write helps someone out there to know they’re not alone.

Is It Really Worth It?

Do you ever feel like giving up? Do you ever feel like it’s just not worth it because it’s not making a difference? That’s how I have been feeling about this blog and my desire to shed light and knowledge on mental illness. With the amount of guilting, shaming, judgement, ignorance, assumptions and condemnation going on lately I feel like mental health has not just been put on the back burner, it has been ignored, forgotten and screwed over all together. It’s like we’re still in the dark ages, where those of us with mental illness are still being cast aside and not given a thought at all. It’s like we don’t matter because all of the stigmas attached to mental illness must actually be true. It feels as though no progress has been made and no progress will be made. It’s not just that other things are more important, it’s that other things are the ONLY things important. Again, we don’t matter. Maybe it’s time to admit defeat, roll over and die.

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Sun Can Still Come Through the Clouds

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“And sun can still come through the clouds.” My fiance said this to me last week. Of course it’s something I already knew—both literally and figuratively, but it really hit me when he said it. I truly believe that even when life is stormy, cloudy, dark, there is still light that can—and does—come through.

The last couple of months were full of blessings, but also full of dark clouds. I struggled with a lot of things. Even though time helped heal some of them, I was still feeling pretty down and confused. Then my boyfriend of almost two years and I took a trip to Arizona, where he grew up. We had an a wonderful weekend exploring his hometown and surrounding areas. The best part of the trip was when he proposed to me on top of a mountain with the most incredible, beautiful view of the valley below. The sun that came from that blew all the clouds away! Well, other than the Cloud 9 I’ve been residing on ever since!

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Sometimes that sun that gets through comes from other people or from amazing circumstances—like getting proposed to—that happen to us. And sometimes we have to provide that light for ourselves. One of the things that helped me during that difficult time not so long ago was playing my flute. It didn’t take the clouds away, but it did allow some sun through. Meaning playing my flute didn’t magically fix what I was going through, but it did give me some reprieve and joy, and that helped a lot.

So for those struggling, for those who feel like their life is clouded over, remember that the sun can still get through. There are things or people that bring light, joy, peace and hope. And you can find them if you just look.

Sometimes It Just Takes Time

I’ve learned several things during this quarantine period. I’m sure we all have! One thing I’ve learned is that you can have social anxiety, but still need to be around people. That’s how my daughter’s therapist put it. He said it was something new he had learned from my daughter. My daughter and I both have social anxiety—we struggle to be in large groups of people, to be outgoing, to talk to others, but we also get anxiety being alone or being isolated. Even though I loved the extra time at home with my kids, I also greatly missed adult interaction with my coworkers. I struggled a lot at first not being around other adults or even just being able to see other people.

Another thing I learned is that I can adapt. Eventually I got used to being at home with just my kids. I often said how I missed other people, other adults, talking face to face with coworkers. But once I had to go back to work, after two months at home, I found my anxiety was really bad. I work at an amazing place, and I love the people I work with so much, but I had gotten so used to the way things became that I was having a hard time coping with the change. Yet another change. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so anxious thinking about going into work and being around other people. I was nauseous and sick to my stomach a lot. But after less than two weeks, I got used to being back at work and was even enjoying it again—just in time for summer break and being off again! Oh the irony.

The thing I learned from all of this is that sometimes it just takes time. Rarely is there some automatic cure-all for anxiety or depression or any kind of mental illness. I do believe there are a lot of things that can help, but sometimes it’s merely about taking time to let things settle. Sometimes it’s about understanding rather than fixing. Sometimes, oftentimes, understanding is what helps. So if you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental illness, especially during this unusual time so full of so many constant changes, don’t think all is lost. Don’t necessarily think you need to rush to change something right away. Give yourself time to understand what’s happening. Maybe you’ll discover that you do need to change something. Maybe it’s time to change the dose of your medication. Maybe it’s time to go back to a therapist. Maybe it’s time to start eating healthier. And maybe you just need time to understand and let things settle into a new normal—or back into an old one. It’s okay to allow yourself or your loved one that time.

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Spiraling Thoughts

What do you do when you feel like you’re in a good place in your life? A place where you finally feel good about yourself, where you think you’re pretty awesome. Not in an egotistical way, but a confident way—because you know you’re trying your hardest, doing your best. And you feel good about that. You feel good about you. What do you do when you’re in that place and other people come along and tell you that you’re not as awesome as you feel, not trying your hardest or doing your best?

Some time ago, someone left this on my doorstep:

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I don’t know who left it for me, but it came at a time I needed it, and it has sat on my dresser ever since, as a reminder that I am trying my hardest and doing my best. But it’s hard to keep believing in yourself when others don’t. It’s hard not to wonder if all those people who have told you you aren’t doing enough are actually right. Maybe all this time I’ve been living in a delusion. If so, how do I know what’s true and what’s me just making stuff up? And are we wrong to feel good about ourselves? Are we wrong to think we’re doing good? Are we supposed to judge against ourselves or by what others say?

Lastly, am I the only one who has spiraling thoughts like this?

Opened Up

Here’s another poem I wrote. Sometimes writing is the only way to get out what I’m feeling. I have no other outlet. So, at times, it is my therapy, and it really does help.

Opened Up

I am a frog,
cold, dead, stiff,
waiting to be opened up
on the science room table.

Dissection,
deflection.
Every cut of the scalpel justified, explained.
Every piece of my soul picked apart.

Somehow,
by strength, by resolve,
I put myself back together,
stitch up the gaping holes,
get ready to leap away.

Then the next student comes,
scalpel in hand.
Dissection,
deflection.
I’m opened up again.

Resources for Suicide

I’ve heard people say that suicide is selfish. I, myself, thought the same thing when I was younger. Then I, myself, almost took my own life twice in high school. I also have thought about taking my own life several times since then. Maybe suicide is selfish, but I also have compassion for those who have suicidal thoughts and those who do take their own lives because I know what it’s like to be in such a dark, depressing place that you feel as if you have no other option.

Suicide is another one of those taboo subjects that I do think is finally coming out of darkness more, which is a good thing. It is something that should be able to be talked about without judgement or condemnation. The more we talk about it the more likely it is that people who are considering suicide can get help. I was so happy and impressed to learn about the effort my state is making from this news article. I’m also very happy about this new website, Live On, that provides resources for education, for helping others and support for those considering suicide. Please check it out, and let’s all work together for better suicide prevention. Because there is always hope for something better. There is always the possibility for light in the darkness.

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It’s Not Always That Simple

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I really liked this article about how it may not be as simple as “just wear a mask”. I think a simple life is a good life, but things within life aren’t always simple.

I never thought I had claustrophobia. I’m still not sure whether I do or not. I do know that most of my adult life I have had an incredible fear of something—anything—covering my face. It’s something that triggers my anxiety. Even just thinking about wearing a mask is terrifying for me. Some time ago, I decided to practice. Sounds stupid, right? But I thought maybe if I practiced I’d eventually be able to wear one. I didn’t have the mask on my face for more than five seconds before I started panicking, hyperventilating and feeling like I was going to die, so I ripped it off.

My autistic son also struggles to wear a mask. He did wear one at outdoor capoeira recently, but refused to have it up above his nose. I know that’s not the proper way to wear one, but it was all he could do.

So again, during this time, I urge kindness and understanding. Understanding that, for some, it’s not as simple as just wearing a mask and kindness for people who are struggling in all ways during this time.

No Respecter of Persons

Today I write in honor of Chris Cornell—three years to the day after his suicide.

I first heard Soundgarden, Cornell’s band, when I was in high school. Black Hole Sun and Spoonman. Instantly I loved them. And then a couple of years after high school I heard Show Me How to Live and I Am the Highway on the radio. The two singles from the first album of Cornell’s new band, Audioslave. I was hooked! The fact that they could write something as powerful and rockin’ as Show Me How to Live and as powerful, yet soft and beautiful as I Am the Highway was amazing to me. I went out and bought the album on CD as soon as it came out. I listened to it over and over and over again.

Many years later, after Audioslave had disbanded, I heard rumors that they were going to get back together to go on tour. I was so psyched! And then, I’ll never forget the day I heard the news that Chris Cornell was gone. It was early in the morning, I was in the car, pulling up to the gym. The DJ on the radio announced that Chris Cornell had hung himself. I was devastated. My heart ached that such a talented person had been in such a dark place that he had felt the only option was to take his own life. And I finally, really came to understand why people made such a big deal about celebrity suicides—because it shows that mental illness is no respecter of persons. So often, we think people have it made—celebrities, CEO’s, the wealthy, even our neighbors, family or friends. It’s easy to think we know what’s going on by seeing the outside, when really, on the inside, that person is struggling, suffering, dying.

Too often, I think the signs of depression get ignored. Too often, I think depression is minimized because it’s easier that way. It’s easier to ignore or give simple answers. Sometimes it’s because of the stigma still attached to depression. Sometimes it’s because of lack of education. And sometimes it’s because, simply put, depression is hard. It can be hard to understand or to know what to do, as is the case with any mental illness. And it can be hard because it’s different for everyone. And that is totally normal.

But when it comes to helping others, what’s right may be more important than what’s easy. The Mayo clinic has an amazing page about how you can recognize depression in others and ways you can help and encourage them. I can testify that even a simple smile can make a difference. I still remember a couple of girls I went to high school with who made a difference in my life. One of them always said hi to me, always gave me a smile. Another one brought me flowers because she had noticed I was sad the day before. I have a friend who easily could have given up on me because, as I stated, depression is hard. But she didn’t. Even when it scared her, she kept being my friend, and that made a huge difference. My boyfriend is a good example, too. Little things like asking questions and trying to understand what I’m going through helps so much. These things truly do matter.

Chris Cornell made a difference to me. There were so many times I was off at college that I would take off for a long drive in my car when I was feeling sad or frustrated about something, and I would crank that Audioslave CD! It always managed to either help release my frustration or remind me that I wasn’t alone. It still saddens me that I’ll never get to see him in concert. It saddens me that such a talented person struggled for so long with depression—until he couldn’t struggle anymore. But I believe we can do something about the alarming number of people who take their own lives. It starts at an individual level. Learn to know the signs of depression and learn what you may be able to do to help. And remember, a simple “hi” or a smile may be just the thing someone needs.

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