It happened recently and I couldn’t imagine why: My heart began banging inside my chest, I was short of breath and dizzy; I was overwhelmed by a sense of dread.
In a matter of seconds I was plunged into a full-blown panic attack – frightened, confused, and completely off-guard. I was in my home, perfectly safe, it was the middle of the afternoon and I was writing as usual.
Why the sudden terror? The feeling that I was about to die?
As it turns out, one of the side effects of a medication I was taking is heart palpitations. Combine that with too much stress and too little sleep – eh voilà – a crippling cocktail that dropped me down the well of Hell for ten terrible minutes.
Then came the fear that it would happen again, and the anxiety over why it happened in the first place.
It was hours before I put two and two together, re-read the fine print on the drug I had ingested, and realized the cause. That was little consolation for those brutal 600 seconds during which I turned on every light in the house, switched off the heat, and breathed my way through to the other side.
Symptoms of Panic Attack
Some describe the sensations of a panic attack as being similar to a heart attack. If you’ve ever seen the film, Something’s Gotta Give, or for that matter, a scene in Sex and the City involving the highly controlled and competent Miranda, both offer excellent depictions of the power of panic to land us in the E.R.
The specific symptoms?
According to WebMD, describing panic attacks and panic disorder:
- Difficulty breathing.
- Pounding heart or chest pain.
- Intense feeling of dread.
- Sensation of choking or smothering.
- Dizziness or feeling faint.
- Trembling or shaking.
- Nausea or stomach ache.
- Tingling or numbness in the fingers and toes.
- Chills or hot flashes.
- A fear that you are losing control or are about to die.
Put me down for numbers 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 11.
Nightmare. Especially that last.
There’s a good deal more on this subject at WebMD, so check it out, and also check out any condition that concerns you with your physician.
My Experience With Panic Attacks
Years ago, lost in the darkness of an undiagnosed sleep disorder, I lived with panic attacks – and worse, the fear of a panic attack – never knowing when it might hit. Fear kept me close to home. Fear kept me inside. Fear kept me from venturing out into the world and connecting to others in ways that would have lessened the isolation I felt. I was cut off – juggling a job I worked partly from home, two very young children, with a husband who traveled much of the week leaving me home alone, managing everything.
What I didn’t realize at the time, having been comfortable being alone for much of my life, was that the sleep deprivation was wreaking havoc with my body and my mind, slowly robbing me of, well… “me.”
Those panic attacks? The inability to catch my breath? The dizziness and dread? I tried talking to my husband about not feeling well several times (unaware of the insidious effects of extended sleep deprivation). His response was a curt “it’s all in your head,” and as no physician could find a “physical cause” for what ailed me, I kept the panic attacks secret and lived with the fear and shame that my spouse was right.
When one very fine doctor thought to put me in a sleep study, life changed. Once a sleep disorder was diagnosed (and dealt with handily), the panic attacks disappeared, as did a number of other physiological and cognitive issues I had been too embarrassed to talk about. It took a few months, but sleep gave me my life back.
Causes for Panic Attacks, Panic Disorder
Affecting some 2.4 million Americans, panic attacks may result from a combination of biological and environmental factors. Stress plays a role, as may substance abuse, hormonal changes, and other factors. (Again, I recommend the reference on WebMD, and note the distinctions between panic attacks and the psychiatric condition of panic disorder.)
Some studies also indicate that women in midlife are more prone to panic attacks. As for gender differences, women may suffer panic-related episodes with greater frequency than men, but this isn’t a “female-only” disorder.
According to SelfGrowth.com:
Studies have shown that women are more than twice as likely as men to have panic attacks. Women are also more likely to have recurring panic attacks and to develop panic disorder condition. Women generally first experience panic attack symptoms in early adulthood.
In my case, according to the physician I was seeing at the time (now nearly 15 years ago), the extreme sleep deprivation left me susceptible to panic, as did a lifestyle in which I was not confronting problems in my marriage, and carrying an untenable level of stress. All of it was severely worsened by isolation.
That is not to diminish the seriousness of the condition whatever its causes, as fear of panic increases the likelihood that you slowly narrow the boundaries of your world lest something trigger panic while you are out in public. Agoraphobia often accompanies panic disorder, and in my opinion, it’s little wonder.
Despite the numbers of people who deal with this potentially debilitating condition, we don’t talk about it in the open for fear of appearing weak or perhaps, getting a dismissive response such as the one preferred by my ex. We live in a culture where if we don’t feel self-assured and together at all times, we certainly don’t disclose it. But if we never talk about these issues, doesn’t that reduce the possibility of addressing them?
Return of the Monster
As for my experience with this disorder, fast forward a few years following divorce: I was more than a “married single mom” at that point. I was virtually a solo mom, with a boatload of legal debt, two young children, most of my married friends became women who walked away or, as I now see, I had distanced myself from them out of shame.
Shame that my husband did not want to be married to me any longer.
Shame that my financial situation was dramatically altered.
Shame that I couldn’t find another corporate job that would provide the income I needed to keep our home, and be a decent mother to my children.
Travel was no longer possible, and even a long commute seemed ill-advised. There were no child care options I could afford, and my children were fragile. Frankly, during those first three years after my marriage ended, so was I. There was dwindling contact with people I’d known for a decade or more, money worries that threatened to sink us, ongoing skirmishes with my ex in the background, and the panic monster returned.
Realizing that my children depended on me gave me the strength to hang in; I found a voice in my head to soothe me: It’s alright, you’re alright, it will pass, keep breathing.
Talking About Our Isolation
I won’t say I never feel that isolation or fear, but I felt it less as my children grew into their independence, as I found my voice again in part through writing, and in trusting one or two new friends and sharing my experience, only to hear that they, too, suffered panic attacks from time to time. They have been, like me, single mothers putting in excessively long days, or going through difficult challenges financially, in their marriages, dealing with elder parents, or concerns over their own health.
Knowing this has been reassuring. My battles with panic are rare now, but stress and insufficient sleep seem to increase the probability that they will recur.
In a recent comment on Stay At Home Moms, and the constancy of the tasks she faces, a reader briefly describes her experience, including the first two years of her daughter’s life during which the child needed special care. Her husband works long hours, and she now manages her 4-year old and a 3-month old. She writes:
My husband is gone from 1pm to 2am so I do everything involving the house and the kids completely on my own. The only downside is the isolation has heightened my panic disorder.
She is not alone. I have just offered my story, in the hope that others will open up and say no to the shame that seems to accompany a condition that affects so many of us.
Would anyone else care to offer their experience with panic or isolation, and how you deal with it?
- Have you been able to find a physiological cause, to de-stigmatize the psychological cause, to address either?
- What has helped?
- Do you have any suggestions to offer this reader?
Resource on Panic Disorder, National Institutes of Health.
You May Also Enjoy