Four ER visits. Two by ambulance. All four times I was convinced I was having a heart attack.
The sensations came without warning: the heat that permeated my insides; intestinal spasms that paralyzed me; a racing heart, pounding heart; nausea; dizziness; crushing chest pain. All culminating with the very real fear that I was slipping away and was going to die.
After a slew of cardiac tests came up negative, one ER doctor asked “do you suffer from anxiety?” My answer? No! Of course not! My life has never been better!
The attacks started coming with more frequency and intensity. In the middle of the night. During playdates. While having supper.
I felt I was endangering my son’s life and the lives of others. I stopped going out. I stopped getting out of bed. I was terrified of being left alone.
When every medical test came up negative my husband recalled the question from the last ER visit: “Do you suffer from anxiety?”
So, one day after dropping our son off at school, my husband bundled me up and brought me to the hospital that changed my life: CAMH. The diagnosis: Severe Panic Disorder caused by untreated Generalized Anxiety Disorder. A panic disorder is most often a by-product of life-long, traumatic stressors. Severe anxiety is a by-product of the fast-paced world we live in. There is no magic cure for having a panic disorder and anxious people are usually going to be anxious forever, however, it is possible to lead a full life in spite of all this. After months of therapy, I am back to being a fully-functioning parent.
These strategies helped me. I hope they help you too.
Don’t be reluctant to seek help and take the medicines prescribed by your doctor religiously.
Don’t stop them when you feel better. Sure, there are side effects, but they are usually mild and can be managed by your doctor and pharmacist. Breastfeeding? Talk to MotherRisk. They stay on top of the latest research and have the best interest of you and your baby at heart.
The secret to living with a panic disorder and severe anxiety is to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The sensations will come and go but if you can stop the attacks quickly, they will not paralyze you. Quite often the anxiety cycle starts with a “what if” thought. The key to anxiety reduction is to stop that thought in it’s tracks. As soon as one of those thoughts pop up in your head, mentally say “STOP”. This takes practice. Say it out loud if you have to. “What if” thinking is the most dangerous kind of thinking. It raises our blood pressure and heart rate. Again, stick to the facts and learn that THOUGHTS ARE NOT REALITY. They feel real, but they’re not.
Repetition is the key.
After “STOP”, take 5 deep breaths. In for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, out for a count of 7.
The anxious mind is searching for danger, searching for something to panic about. Use the 5,4,3,2,1 method of re-directing the mind. While breathing slowly, name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
Between breathing and this, the mind has a lot to do.
Go to a sink and run the water as cold as you can get it. Cup your hands and fill them with water until it is uncomfortable. Splash your face. The sensation of extreme cold is often enough to stop a panic attack. Your brain can only handle one emergency at a time; your cold hands will distract your brain from the imaginary danger causing your panic attack.
Now, how to stop these thoughts from forming in the first place…repeat this phrase multiple times a day: “I can handle it”. In the face of a new situation, a scary situation, at the start of each day “I CAN HANDLE IT”.
Increase your protein intake. Protein at every meal. Lots of veggies too. Eliminate caffeine and sugar (Ha! ask me how I’m doing with this one…). Exercise, too, is absolutely essential.
ESPECIALLY when you don’t feel like it. Anxiety wants to keep you paralyzed in bed. Don’t let it win.
Finally, anxiety is the most contagious emotion. I need to check myself multiple times a day. If our son starts on the path I’m on, well, that would break my heart. When anxiety and panic get the better of me, though, I let him help me through it. I tell him that my brain is getting really worried about (blank). Then I say, it’s a silly worry, because I know I can handle it. We don’t want to pretend anxiety and panic don’t happen, we just want to give them the tools to not be afraid of it.
And the tools to help them when the mind DOES control the body, instead of the other way around (which is the way it should be).
By Angie Elliott