Panic Attacks: Healing from the Downward Spiral
My recent experience with a panic attack, and what I have done to stop the downward spiral. January 21, 2018
I haven’t posted for a while because of the Christmas Holidays, and because I just recently experienced my first panic attack about 10 days ago. I had never experienced a panic attack prior to this, and I hope to never have this experience again. I wanted to share my story, because others have shared theirs with me, and it has given me the hope I need to move through this! My first panic attack occurred, during what I would consider, one of the least stressful times of my life. I took time off all my projects for the Christmas holidays, and I decided I was just going to rest and enjoy the break. My husband had been in town, (and he normally travels), and my mom was here to help with the kids and cooking. It really was a very calm and relaxing time.
What was the Trigger?
Recently, several friends and acquaintances close in age to me had passed away. I had also been pondering life, death, and spiritual things. I spent several days in a row with my nose in my scriptures trying to understand why tragedies happen, and the thought occurred to me….what if there is no God? What if there is no resurrection? What if I’m just crazy for believing in all these things? …and BOOM, as soon as I had that thought, I had a full blown panic attack. I felt mentally and physically as if I was going to die. A heavy “weight” fell on my heart that was both physical and emotional, and then I felt heat rush all over my body. I then fell to my knees, began praying, and begged God to let me live. When I came out of the panic, which lasted for about 10 minutes, even though I could look around me and “see” that I was okay, somehow, I still couldn’t convince myself that I was okay…..and this began my downward spiral over the next several days.
My husband got back in town that night, and I told him what happened. Then over the next several days I woke every morning with extreme anxiety that would result in a panic attack at some point in the morning. During these panic attacks, I would hit the lowest emotional low I HAVE EVER FELT in my entire life (even lower than experiencing actual loss of those I loved). I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. There is nothing wrong in my life. In fact, everything is wonderful, and has been wonderful and easy-going for the last several months. I couldn’t believe the power one thought of the mind could have over my body. Let me clarify, it wasn’t really one thought that was the trigger, most likely, it was that one thought that triggered past trauma that I had never dealt with.
As I’ve pondered my own scenarios of life and death, there have been a few incidences in my life where thought I was going to die. One was after giving birth to my third child. My placenta didn’t deliver, and I began hemorrhaging. I lost three liters of blood, and while I was calm in the incident, as they were putting me to sleep to manually go in and remove my placenta, the last thought I had was “what if this is the last time I see my kids and my husband?” After that experience, I remembered being emotionally low for quite some time because I felt as though I had no say in whether or not I would be able to be there with my family. This was at the tail end of a miserable pregnancy where I was sick for most of the time, and I was barely able to take care of myself and my children. I had already been struggling with feelings of worthlessness from not being able to care for myself or anyone else, and the finale ended with hemorrhaging during my delivery, and having to be put under anesthesia at the hospital. We all experience trauma. I’m not saying this is THE EVENT, or the ONLY EVENT that triggered my panic attack. It’s just something I have never emotionally dealt with that seems like a familiar feeling, to why I was pondering death so deeply at the time of my panic attack. One of the psychologists I spoke with said it was relatively normal for clients to come in, during non stressful phases of their life, and yet be dealing with panic attacks. Just like a drug addict can be triggered by a song that they used to play during a period of time where they used drugs, even though, they hadn’t used drugs for years. Our subconscious continues to run in the background, programming our physical responses, even though we may be far removed from a situation.
Back to the present and my first panic attack.
After three days, I was becoming scared to be alone, I was scared to leave the house, I was scared this was the beginning of the rest of my “new” life. I was terrified. The pain I was experiencing each day was so emotionally deep, and this emotional pain was manifesting in real physical symptoms. Throughout the day, out of my control, waves of heat would roll over my body, with waves of depression and severe anxiety. I had no appetite at all, and I was in constant fear of my next attack. Why was I so afraid? Because I couldn’t talk myself out of it. I knew I wasn’t in physical danger. I knew everything was great in my life, and yet…I was hitting rock bottom every morning and it was completely out of my control.
Well I am on day 11, and while initially things got worse, as soon as I realized there was a way to pull myself out of this…I immediately became very proactive. I am writing about this now, not because I KNOW that I am healed completely–because I don’t know, but I am writing this because just a little bit of hope is what began pulling me out of my downward spiral. I wan’t to write about this experience, so that I can look back on this and know how far I have come. I also want to remind myself of how powerful the mind can be, and why it not only matters physically what we put into our bodies, BUT OUR MENTAL APPETITE is just as important. Also, I am blessed beyond measure, because people I love rallied around me to support me instantly. Nobody told me to snap out of it. Nobody told me to change my attitude. These people knew me, and knew that THIS WAS NOT ME. I WAS NOT CHOOSING THIS. This experience has given me so much empathy for something I never could have understood without experiencing it myself. I hope what I share causes you to rally around those you love. I am not ashamed of my trials. I am so grateful that I was so completely open with so many people because it is people who are pulling me out of this. I know I am loved and cared for.
Day One, I had one panic attack in the evening. Then every morning thereafter for the next seven days I had a panic attack in the morning, with occasional panic attacks in the evening as well (my fear, anxiety, and chest pain lasted throughout the day as well). On day eight, I held off a panic attack for the entire day, but I wrestled with severe anxiety, waves of heat, and depression, as well as carrying a heavy weight in my heart. Day 9 and 10, I had high anxiety in the morning, and the rest of the day just mild anxiety. Day 11, today, I only wrestled with mild anxiety here and there throughout the day, with some mild waves of heat, and a couple moments of mild depression. I can feel myself leaving the downward spiral. I know tomorrow will be even better than today.
January 23, 2018
I just got back from taking the kids to the park. I am almost at 90 percent better. I feel great! I slept great for the first time. At the suggestion of a professional psychologist recommended by my doctor, they recommended mindfulness meditation, specifically “grounding.” Grounding is a technique where you bring your thoughts back to the present. I’m creative brained, and so I love letting my thoughts run wild, however, that is not necessarily a positive thing if you are dealing with negative emotions. It’s important to ground yourself and bring yourself back to the present moment. I can feel my thoughts trailing off. I now pay attention, and put them right back in the present. I feel the texture of the keyboard that I am typing on. I feel my feet planted firmly on the floor encased in my comfy tennis shoes. I focus on where I am, and when my thoughts and my subconscious seem overactive. I turn on a 10 minute guided grounded meditation and I feel great. This is the best day I have had yet. I have been crafting, running errands, cleaning. I feel my old self that I love returning to her old routines. I have missed being me. It is day 13.
Steps I am Taking to Pull Myself Out of The Downward Spiral of Panic Attacks–IT’S WORKING!
- TALK ABOUT IT- When this first happened, it was so scary that I immediately began reaching out to everyone I knew. I wasn’t alone. So many people experience this, especially women. Women are twice as likely to experience a panic attack compared to a man. Family and friends immediately rallied around me for support. My husband took the week off work. Everyone that I knew and loved reached out to me, and I reached out to them. I told them I needed their prays. I received texts almost daily to remind me that they were praying for me and that they knew I would pull through this.
- CHANGE YOUR BELIEFS- This is a broad statement, but basically, I was believing something negative that had become very real to me emotionally. That thing was that I could die. Well of course I could die, but NOT TODAY. So I am changing my beliefs. I am reminding myself of how many times God has intervened in my life to help me through difficult times so that I could be here to support my family. I am changing what I believe about my former experience with my pregnancy because I don’t want to live in fear any more. That I received a small prompting from the spirit to make sure I kept taking that iron pill even though my iron was already high. I am reminding myself that someone on the other side was watching out for me that day because even the doctor couldn’t believe that I didn’t need a blood transfusion. I’m reminding myself that things really were never as bad as they seemed, that I was back on feet within 24 hours taking care of my baby. It’s important to work through past issues as well as what we are currently dealing with. So when I say change your beliefs–change what may be mentally harming you form your past and present. Make it into something positive. I’m now saying, “You didn’t almost die, you were prepared and protected by someone who is watching over you.”
- HOW’s YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH- I ended up going to the emergency room on day 5 because I was still having chest pains, severe lows, heat radiating all over my body. I knew something was physically wrong, but I couldn’t tell what was causing what. Do I really have heart problems? This couldn’t all be in my head because I was experiencing physical symptoms? What if something really was wrong? So I went to the E.R. and the doctors did find that I had low potassium and a mild Urinary Tract Infection that I didn’t even realize I had. UTI’s in the elderly, can cause depression, confusion, memory loss simply because of the inflammation. Studies have been done that show that inflammation of the body can affect our mental state. So do what you need to get healthy. Rule out the worst. If you think you are dying–check with a medical professional. Make sure you are well. When they said my heart, lungs, and thyroid were fine, I knew that I didn’t need to waist anymore time focusing on those things. Thyroid can even affect your body in weird ways. I am 34 years old, and so I do still plan on getting my hormones checked. Some times peace of mind is all you need to be able to move forward during a difficult time.
- DROP THE SHAME- Don’t be embarrassed. So many people have, and are dealing with this. Don’t tell yourself your a bad mom or wife. You’re not. Don’t tell yourself your broken. Actually, you’re more normal than you realize.
- SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP IMMEDIATELY- I began speaking with physicians and mental help professionals immediately. I’m fortunate that some of these people were family and friends, some of them were not. Either way, I was reassured by all of them that they had dealt with this before, and that I would get better. All the mental help professionals I spoke with said that the main treatment was “mindfulness mediation” and that if necessary, medication could help. As of this morning, I am only using mindfulness techniques, however I do believe that medication may be helpful for some people especially if you have not used mindfulness before. I am a huge fan of meditation, but I did try the medication to see what I thought. Basically, when I took the medication, it cleared my thoughts–so don’t be afraid to use medication if you need to. But because I am experience with mediation, I believe in it, and I have used it before. Meditation is very effective. Which is why, when the professionals told me what to do, I didn’t waste much time. I already believed in the process. However, it may be difficult for someone who has never experienced mindfulness meditation to believe that something so simple can work to pull an individual out of panic attacks, but it absolutely can.
- ACCOUNTIBILITY- My family created an accountably text message thread where they would text me positive messages. My sister sent out a message that said, “Making a list and checking it off raises dopamine” And so she challenged my entire family to the task. I did it, and it made me feel better that day. I pulled out a craft that I had no desire to work on, and I started it. I am now finishing that same craft this evening, but my emotions are completely opposite. I am pumped about the project. I can’t wait to complete it. Also, when I made my list, I wrote the emotion that I wanted to feel next to the task I would complete. For example, “Get Ready” had the emotion written next to it, “Feel Beautiful.” This was a reminder to me to put effort into the task until I could feel the intended result. It helped a lot.
- KEEP MOVING–Get out of the house. The first day my husband took off work, he scheduled a hike for our family. Fortunately, we got lost on the hike, and we were gone for hours. Our kids were melting down by the end of it, and it was great! Why was it great? Because it took my focus off me, and what I was going through, and on the difficult days, I needed that.
- ALREADY HAVE GOOD HABITS- At the time this happened, I was already on a pretty healthy diet. I already was working out 5 days a week, and so it was easy to start removing negatives to see if they had triggered this event. I was consuming quite a bit of caffeine (which heightens anxiety), and so I immediately removed that. I also added in multi-vitamins. B vitamins are essential to brain health and moods. Especially, Vitamin B6. Read studies on B6 and depression, panic attacks, etc. It may be a good idea to add these vitamins to your regular routine for your brain health, and cut out unnecessary stimulants.
- GET A MASSAGE and EAT SOME FOOD-I realized that my back was very sore and tense from the panic attacks, and sometimes I would “mentally” confuse the already existing tension in my back for a panic attack that might be coming on, which would increase my anxiety even more. I am fortunate because I have one of those big bulky massage chairs, but in general, pay attention to your body is feeling and ask questions, don’t make assumptions. Is this an attack coming on, or is this just tension? I experienced the same thing with food. I had no appetite at all, and so I would frequently get the “shakes” which I would immediately fear was an impending panic attack. Make sure you are eating regularly regardless of whether or not you are hungry.
- REINVENT YOUR SELF-Sometimes in life we go through ruts. Remind yourself daily of your purpose, and then physically do things to fulfill that purpose (whether or not you feel that way). Remind your brain what gives you joy.
- FAMILY SUPPORT-Everyone was praying for me. When I was at the lowest low, I began to worry that my own prayers weren’t working, and so it was really important for me to know that others were praying for me. It made me feel like God would hear someone even if I felt like he wasn’t hearing me, and that gave me hope. I received blessings, words of support, text messages, and tons of prayers! My family even set a special time one evening where all of us, no matter where we were, would pray for me to get well. That tells you how scary this was for me…I enlisted everyone I knew!
- YOU WILL GET BETTER–You must believe you will get better because you will. Every person I spoke to that experienced this said they came out of it completely within two or three months (I’m not talking about those with diagnosed conditions, just those who had experienced short term panic attacks). Some people used medication, some people didn’t. Some people used therapy, and some people just waited it out. Your body will readjust, and remember, there are things you can do to be proactive to move it along quicker. Your subconscious runs all night long while you are sleeping. Program your brain before you go to bed and when you wake up, and throughout the day. Today, I have done about 1 hour and 30 minutes total of “grounding” mediation. I find 10 minute youtube videos, and I sit down and do it whenever my thoughts wander. I started this last night before bed, and have done it through out the day, and like I said, today I felt almost at 90% of my healthy self–This is huge! I will continue to keep you posted on my progress as well. I will do an update on this same post if you are interested in how I hold up.
- BLOOD FLOW TO THE BRAIN- In a fight or flight response, cortisol is released throughout your body. When I would feel the heat come over my body like I might have a panic attack, I would flip over and hang my head over the sofa or edge of the bed. Then, like magic, seriously, it would nearly stop the attack. Blood flow is healing, it also gets the body into a meditative state very quickly. When I started doing this, I almost instantly starting having better days. I used this technique before I began doing the grounding mediation.
- MEDITATION, BREATHING–When the panic attacks were really bad in the beginning days, I would breathe and relax like I was having a labor contraction and it would stop the attack. How do you prepare yourself for the worst physical pain in your life? The technique I used during the final stage of labor was to first relax my jaw, and then relax my neck, shoulders, chest, etc. all the way down to my feet. Sometimes we think we are relaxed, but you will find that there is still tension in your jaw. If you start with your jaw first, everything gets easy from there. During a panic attack, I used this same technique to ward off physical pain. I only used this technique prior to this panic attack during the final stage of labor–that tells you how bad the attacks were for me on a pain scale. Deep breathing works as well, make sure you breath slowly from your diaphragm, just a few breaths to get you relaxed. Don’t over do it. You don’t want to hyperventilate. Also, accept the attack coming on. Don’t fight. Accepting the attack will actually help to stop it. It convinces the body you don’t need fight or flight mode. I would tell myself it was okay to have, and that I loved myself either way.
- VISUALIZATION- I visualized everything to get me through this. When I prayed, I envisioned God clothing me with glory and strength. When I felt an attack come on, I would visualize Christ taking it away from me. When I did grounding mediation, any time I was told to visualize light, I would visualize Christ, and the light emanating from him, and then shining down upon me and filling my body. I am still doing that.
- ASK FOR AND ACCEPT HELP–My husband took off work, friends and family watched my kids, friends in the medical field and in the field of psychology were quick to give support and advice. Friends from church who had struggled shared their experiences and checked on me. There are times in life to be strong and stand on your own two feet–this is not one of them. Accept help, accept your weaknesses, and let people love you! Most of the time when I have prayed to God asking for help in my life, he has sent me help through other people. Crazy story…I was at the gym on day three, barely functioning after having an attack that morning. I was just trying to keep moving. I had been praying for days for God to help me out of this, and I had begun to believe that he wasn’t listening to me, but I kept praying. I walked into the sauna at the gym, took out my headphones (which I never do), and there are these two women talking about panic attacks they had been through in the past…literally, mid sentence as I take out my head phones. I burst into tears in front of them, and begin telling them that I am dealing with it right now. They both hugged me, gave me words of comfort, and one of the ladies gives me the name of someone she thinks may be able to help me. Wow, I knew in that moment God was listening to me the whole time. God was always listening, and he was answering me the same way he usually does–through others. Ask for help, and then accept it (from both God and people around you).