Living With Panic Attacks

Making Peace with Fear

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“An anxiety attack, aka panic attack, involves repeated episodes of sudden, unexplained feelings of intense fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes.” Mayo Clinic

To look at me and my home life, my career as an author, and my usually positive outlook, you’d never guess that since childhood I have harbored a secret that I was hesitant to let family, friends, or co-workers know.

 I suffer from panic attacks, bouts of ongoing fear for no reason.

Now that might not seem to be a secret that is embarrassing or shameful but I grew up in a time when society judged us on our strengths. A person, children included, who suffered from panic attacks used to be seen as ‘being weak’ and having no control. Even as a child, I knew this, so I suffered in silence.

An anxiety attack has nothing to do with an actual frightening event that is taking place. You don’t have to be in a scary situation to have a panic attack. You could be simply having a lovely dinner at your favorite restaurant or relaxing poolside on a great vacation. All of a sudden you get a strong surge of fear most often accompanied by physical symptoms such as a racing heart, profuse sweating, and shortness of breath. Panic attacks just seem to happen no matter where you are.

While the initial feelings of terror and fear—thankfully—don’t last very long, those few minutes are very frightening. As a child, I hid in a corner of a dark room until the ‘scary time’ passed. In high school and college, I would sit in a corner on the floor with my arms crossed protectively over my chest until the attack passed. As an adult in the working world I would go to the restroom and splash cold water on my face knowing rationally that within a few minutes the terrors would pass, even while my heart raced and I broke out in a cold sweat. Through all this I became adept at hiding my panic attacks from everyone even my husband Alan. Keeping that secret had consequences in added stress which caused digestive problems.

The odd thing was that the attacks always occurred between four o’clock and four-thirty every afternoon. While the attacks were worse in the winter months when darkness descended around that hour, I still suffered from them year-round. On a beautiful, warm sunny summer day, that four o’clock anxiety attack would arrive on time—the season didn’t matter. And truthfully I had no idea why the feeling of panic seemed to happen every day at that particular late afternoon hour. Still, come four PM and bam! Panic.

My secret finally came out when Alan came home early from his teaching position, found me huddled in a chair in our bedroom, and became concerned when I told him my heart was racing like crazy but that, “It’s nothing new. It’s just my daily panic attacks.” Now this is a man who powers through any of his own fears and obstacles so it was especially comforting to have him sit with me until the attack passed and then listen calmly while I described my lifelong bouts with anxiety attacks.

Having someone acknowledge the validity of a problem has tremendous freeing power. I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my mind. I knew that I would still have the panic attacks but now there was someone who was willing to try to understand what I was going through. He’s a practical man, someone who always seeks to find solutions to any problems. We researched everything we could find on the subject and together we outlined some crucial ways on how I could deal with the ‘four o’clock frights’. As Alan says, I needed to take charge of this.

First, we established that it was absolutely important to understand that the attack, though frightening at the time it was happening, would definitely end, it would pass. Secondly, it was important to acknowledge that, while the fear I was feeling was very real at that moment, when the attack was over, I could see that nothing terrible had actually happened. I had to remind myself that it was anxiety I was feeling and that I was not in real danger. Having someone to talk to about this was a real blessing. I didn’t feel alone or weak because of the attacks. I actually felt relieved that I didn’t have to hide this ‘secret’ anymore.

The panic attacks still arrive every day and I am learning how best to cope with them. The truth is that panic attacks will never fully disappear but there are ways to help your mind and your body work around them.

I make sure that I don’t allow myself to get overtired—I don’t force myself to stay awake when I’m tired. I’m not superwoman, I need at least eight full hours of uninterrupted sleep. It may be hard to accomplish but I’m trying. Sleep really is like a magic potion that restores your body’s health.

I’ve changed my diet a bit. There are foods that seem to have a calming effect on your mind such as salmon, ginger, oatmeal, and yogurt.

Sounds and visualization help too. I turn on the soothing sound of ocean waves on my tablet and picture a calm ocean. The visualization of gentle waves coming to shore is peace inducing.

So, the question is, have I cured my panic attacks? No.  They still come on-time and never miss a day. My research tells me that I will probably always have these attacks and that I will learn to live my life with them.

Research also says that there are medications that can help to alleviate the panicky feelings but I choose not to use medication. And though I know that there are people who will choose meds and will benefit from them, I’m going a different route. That’s my choice and both choices should be respected for the individuals who choose them.

The great thing is that I’m not hiding the panic attacks anymore. I’m not embarrassed by them, it’s not a sign of weakness, and it’s more common than we know. It’s as high as one out of every seventy-five people. That number may go higher as the pandemic offers an uncertain future and panic attacks seem to be on the rise.

To anyone who is suffering panic attacks, I urge you to not suffer in silence as I did for so many years. Tell someone and seek medical attention if you feel it is necessary. You’re not alone and there are ways to help navigate this problem.

It’s almost four o’clock and I know the panic attack will arrive. But I also know that I will be alright.

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