TURN PANIC INTO A PICNIC
Each season brings with it different challenges for someone living with a panic disorder. The winter brings with it the holiday party season, and the fact that you will have to see lots of people – some of them strangers. The summer brings the warm weather and the fear of shedding your protectives layers of clothing that have kept you hidden and safe. And in the fall, you worry that angry squirrels will attack you with acorns (maybe that’s just my fear – I’m not sure about that.)
But what does the spring – this season – bring? It brings panic attacks.
Several times I have talked about how winter builds a fortress around an agoraphobic. It creates a barrier between us and the outside world. Everyone is hunkered down in their caves, hibernating. It is a safe feeling that is detrimental to social interaction.
The snow melts, but the barriers remain. It takes work to get rid of them. This is where my life is right now: I am struggling to get back into the world.
Last week I had two panic attacks. They were predictable and logical, and I could feel them coming a mile away. I took preventative steps, but they still came at me. I had to use all my tools to manage them.
The first happened just as I was to have a meeting with some people to discuss a book on which I am working. The funny thing about this is that I was looking forward to this meeting. Panic attacks don’t differentiate according to whether or not you want to do something. Their triggers vary from person to person. For me, a panic scenario can be being with a crowd of people (strangers or not) and it’s even worse when I have to speak.
The day of the meeting arrived. First the butterflies in the stomach appeared. They grew and grew until I wanted to run away and hide. It was hard to breathe, hard to focus, hard to talk. Luckily, I was able to recognize that I was spiraling into an attack, so I used my “anti-panic tool kit” right away. I asked myself the questions: “Did I want to go to the meeting?” The answer was yes. I determined that the only reason I felt that way was fear, and my rules say that if fear is the only thing stopping you, then you must face the fear and do whatever it is. So I went to the meeting.
This time it wasn’t so easy. I used self-talk to stay calm enough so that no one noticed (I hope). Even though I didn’t feel like my regular self, I got through it. When I arrived home, I was exhausted from all the “mental work” I had done. Still, I did not give up and it was a relative success.
The second attack last week came while shopping in a crowded department store. That alone can be enough, but that wasn’t the trigger. The trigger was thoughts about an upcoming trip I am taking. Again, I realized I was spiraling into panic. My heart raced. My mind fogged. My stomach clenched, and felt queasy. And again I used my tools. It took some time, but eventually my mind was able to focus on the positive aspects of my upcoming trip.
The reason I am writing about these attacks is to make an important point: the triggers of fear and anxiety that cause panic don’t disappear. Even for someone like me who has had success dealing with this condition, it is a life-long burden. It demands a lot of work and can be tiring, even discouraging. Sometimes you feel like putting on your self-pity clothes and asking “why me?” But that doesn’t do any good. It’s counter-productive. This is who you are, so just accept is as part of you and move on.
A panic attack often has two parts. First, there is the overwhelming wave of emotion which manifests itself in physical conditions. It can make you feel helpless, but don’t worry about that. Worry is something that IS under your control.
The second part is hardest because it involves work. You dissect the attack into tiny parts and bash them into submission. You counter every negative thought with a solution and a positive thought. If you like, find someone willing to listen to you. They don’t have to say much – you just need to vent these feelings. Venting is good.
I am doing better today, but I am not over the hump by a long shot. The good thing is that I know how to get where I want to be. I need to keep doing what I want to do to live the life I find fulfilling. I will not back down to fear or run away from it. And just as I stay positive, you can too.