One of the unfortunate outcomes from suffering from excessive stress and anxiety is a physical reaction of your body to the situation. It’s like your body is telling you that you need to rest for a moment. Except when you’re having a panic attack, it’s anything BUT restful.
I had my first panic attack while my husband and I were driving home from a St. Louis Rams football game. We were about 30 miles from our home when I began to feel a bit “off”. I was having trouble breathing, my body felt disconnected, and my heart was beating at what seemed like 90 miles an hour.
I pulled the van off to the side of the highway and got out hoping to “walk it off”. But it didn’t work. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t catch my breath. I felt like I was dying. I remember saying over and over again, “Please not now. I’m not ready.” It was horrifying.
The good news is that I wasn’t dying – obviously! But that night began a terrible journey for me into how my body reacted to excessive stress and anxiety. Since then, I have had many panic attacks, but I also learned how to recognize that one might be coming on and how to control it. I’m not always able to get hold of it completely and will occasionally fall into full-blown panic mode, but it’s a lot better than it was.
So, let’s look at the signs that you might be having a panic attack. The following list gives tell-tale warning signs of an oncoming panic attack.
• A pounding heart, or an accelerated heart rate
• Trembling or shaking
• Shortness of breath
• A choking sensation
• Chest pain or discomfort
• Nausea or stomach cramps
• De-realization (a feeling of unreality)
• Fear of losing control or going crazy
• Fear of dying
• Numbness or a tingling sensation in your face and limbs
• Chills or hot flashes
You would be surprised at how many people go to the hospital emergency room completely sure that they’re having a heart attack only to find out that it’s a panic attack. They’re that intense!
It’s very difficult for your loved ones to imagine or even understand what you are going through when you have a panic attack. They may lose patience with you, tell you to “get over it”, or think you’re faking. It may help if you show them the following scenario. You are standing in line at the grocery store. It’s been a long wait but there’s only one customer to go before you make it to the cashier. Wait, what was that?
An unpleasant feeling forms in your throat, your chest feels tighter, now a sudden shortness of breath, and what do you know—your heart skips a beat. “Please, God, not here.”
You make a quick scan of the territory—is it threatening? Four unfriendly faces are behind you and one person is in front. Pins and needles seem to prick you through your left arm, you feel slightly dizzy, and then the explosion of fear as you dread the worst. You are about to have a panic attack.
There is no doubt in your mind now that this is going to be a big one. Okay, time for you to focus. You know how to deal with this – at least you hope you do! Start breathing deeply – in through the nose, out through the mouth. Think relaxing thoughts, and again, while breathing in, think “Relax,” and then breathe out. But it doesn’t seem to be having any positive effect; in fact, just concentrating on breathing is making you feel self-conscious and more uptight.
Maybe if you just try to relax your muscles. Tense both shoulders, hold for 10 seconds, then release. Try it again. Nope, still no difference. The anxiety is getting worse and the very fact that you are out of coping techniques worsens your panic. If only you were surrounded by your family, or a close friend were beside you so you could feel more confident in dealing with this situation.
Now, the adrenaline is really pumping through your system, your body is tingling with uncomfortable sensations, and now the dreaded feeling of losing complete control engulfs your emotions. No one around you has any idea of the sheer terror you are experiencing. For them, it’s just a regular day and another frustratingly slow line at the grocery store.
You realize you are out of options. It’s time to run. You excuse yourself from the line looking embarrassed as it is now that it is your turn to pay. The cashier is looking bewildered as you leave your shopping behind and stroll towards the door.
There is no time for excuses—you need to be alone. You leave the supermarket and get into your car to ride it out alone. You wonder whether or not this one was the big one. The one you fear will push you over the edge mentally and physically. Ten minutes later the panic subsides. It’s only 11:00 in the morning, how in the world can you make it through the rest of your day?
If you suffer from panic or anxiety attacks, the above scenario probably sounds very familiar. It may have even induced feelings of anxiety and panic just reading it. In fact, it was difficult for me just to write it!
The particular situations that trigger your panic and anxiety may differ. Maybe the bodily sensations are a little different. What’s important to realize is that panic attacks are very real to the people who are having them and they should never be pushed off to the side.
I remember one evening at home when I was by myself watching one of my favorite television programs. I thought I was in a safe place. There was no obvious trigger and I felt completely relaxed. Out of nowhere, I began having symptoms of a panic attack. The four walls of my living room were closing in around me. I couldn’t breathe and felt like I was dying.
I stepped out on my front porch for some fresh air and began deep breathing exercises. The symptoms eventually went away, but it left me wondering why exactly I had that attack. There was no obvious reason, no stressful situation, and no indicator that a panic attack might be impending.
That’s the strange thing about panic. Sometimes your mind can play tricks on you. Even when you think you’re in no danger of having a panic attack, your brain might be feeling differently. That’s the scary part. The good part is that there are ways you can combat panic attacks and cope much better when you find yourself in that situation.