Friday, March 9, 2018

Happy Birthday - Here's Your Panic Attack

A co-worker and friend of mine had a panic attack this week.  It was extremely scary for him and quite debilitating.  Fortunately I was able to help him because I too have suffered from panic attacks.  

About 7 years ago...on my birthday...I experienced my first panic attack.  Its an experience I will never forget.  I was walking in the Chicago Midway airport toward my gate when I felt my pulse pick up.  I thought maybe I had had a little too much soda and the caffeine was messing with me.  As I walked a little farther I felt myself getting short of breath and my heart racing.  No matter what I did I couldn't settle down.  It was the feeling of needing to run straight out of the building and into the fresh air.  I even considered that I was having a heart attack.  

Now, let me tell you how the typical male mind works.  I was in the middle of my first panic attack, not knowing it was a panic attack and actually afraid I was having a heart attack, and I was concerned that I would miss my flight.  I knew that the flight to Memphis was the last flight of the night and if I missed it I would miss my morning training and have to answer for it.  Heaven forbid anyone know what was happening to me!  So I boarded the plane and passed out as soon as I sat down.  

Those who have never experienced a panic attack don't understand the overwhelming signals your mind is getting.  Its like a circle of people pushing you from one side to the other, screaming in your ear, and slapping you faster than you can defend yourself.  Its a feeling that you are going to die, while knowing that you are not really going to die.  The signals to your brain don't match anything that is happening.  

A problem with panic attacks is that they may not seem to make sense.  My opinion goes like this:  when we try to swallow our issues and anxieties we push it down.  The next time we push it down.  And again.  And again.  And eventually there is no more room to push it down.  Just like a garbage bag, if you keep smashing garbage into it, you will run out of room, and the next time you mash more garbage in, the bag splits.  I personally believe that a panic attack is when the brain makes the decision that its filled to the top with stress and it decides to kick some back.  

For a long time I feared the panic attack.  And my anxiety LOVED THAT!  It basically fed on itself.  I got anxious about having an attack, which made me more likely to have one.  The more I had, the more afraid I became, and the more I had, and the more afraid I became, and the more i had.  it was a disorder that fed itself!  

Caregivers are especially vulnerable to panic attacks.  We worry every minute of every day.  And when we don't worry, we worry that we aren't worrying.  Its a vicious cycle.  It leads to panic disorders, depression, physical ailments, and suicide.  

So how do we combat this?  How do we keep ourselves from becoming so overwhelmed?  For me it was about owning it.  It sounds easy enough, but most humans hate to admit their weaknesses.  We might be afraid that people will look down on us.  Men are afraid to look like they have any weakness at all.  We might be afraid to compromise our jobs.  The problem is that hiding it makes matters much worse.  Its an added pressure when our garbage bag is already full.  I found that being open about it helped.  As a matter of fact, when I opened up about it, other people admitted they had the same issues.  Still others offered to help me through my vulnerable situations.  People didn't judge me like I thought they were going to.  Once I came to terms with it and opened up about it, the anxiety lost much of its power.  

Here is my advice to those fighting anxiety and panic; you have to take away the power that it has over you.  By admitting it, owning it, and dealing with it head-on, you fight back.  It wants you to feel afraid and ashamed so it can come back on you.  When you talk about it and comes to terms with it, it loses its grip.  I've already told groups that I speak to that I have anxiety and to simply ignore me if I pass out, and we laugh about it for a minute, and suddenly the anxiety loses its grip. 

Anxiety wants you to lose your faith, shrink in fear, and empower it.  Do the opposite, have faith, stand tall, and take the power away from it.

Be well and God bless.    Tom

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