Before we move on to Part 3 of my anxiety story, in which obsession turns to guilt and paralyzation in my young adult life, I want to talk about something else that happened when I was a teenager.
If you haven't read parts 1 and 2 of my story please do that first:
My heart is racing. My chest is tight. It hurts. I can't breathe. I'm dizzy. everything looks strange. You're talking to me, but you sound so far away. I'm getting hot. Why am I sweating? I'm going to pass out. Oh God, I'm going to pass out! I have to get out of here RIGHT NOW! No really, I have to get out of here right now, OR I'M GOING TO DIE!
Am I having a heart attack? Nope. It's a panic attack.
Sometimes, I still can't tell the difference. Sometimes, I have to ask my husband whether I am having an asthma attack or a panic attack, so I know whether to take my inhaler. It feels the same, but he can tell the difference by listening to me breathe.
Disclaimer: My husband has medical training, volunteered in EMS for 10+ years, was a 911 dispatcher, and has witnessed me have many panic attacks and asthma attacks. If you ever feel like you can't breathe, don't mess around call 911!
My point is that panic attacks really do feel like death is coming quickly. Real physical symptoms happen in our bodies when we have a panic attack. It is not all in our head. (By the way, never tell someone with anxiety or depression "it's all in your head.")
I was a sophomore in high school when I had my first panic attack shortly after the tragedy of 9/11. I am pretty sure that is what triggered the Generalized Anxiety Disorder that I already had to invite Panic Disorder (panic attacks) to the party in my brain. And by party I mean more like a terrifying haunted Halloween party than a super fun birthday party.
Panic attacks can start from an actual fear, and I've had plenty of those where something I was worried about turns into a panic attack. But they also start for seemingly no reason at all (see the end of the post for what I learned was causing my panic attacks in department stores and restaurants).
I would often be sitting in a restaurant with loved ones having a great time, and all of a sudden, boom, panic attack. I have to get out of here now! And I would. I would get up and go in the bathroom or step outside for a few minutes before I could come back to the table.
Other times, I would be in the grocery store. That's a lot scarier than a restaurant because I can't just leave without buying my stuff. What if I pass out before I get out of here? After I had kids it got even worse, what will happen to the kids if I pass out?
It is a vicious cycle once a panic attack starts because the physical symptoms are so real, they scare me too. So the panic attack starts, then the fear of what if this is not a panic attack (or before being diagnosed, what the heck is happening to me?) and I pass out, or I'm having a heart attack, and I die? This fear heightens the panic attack, which then heightens the fear that something is really wrong, which heightens the panic attack, which...you get the idea. And that's on top of whatever caused the panic attack in the first place.
The fear that I could actually be about to pass out, or die, was very real for me. I had a history of fainting since I was a small child. The feeling I get with a panic attack, and the feeling I would get right before fainting are the same. At this point in my life (29 years old) I have not actually fainted in over 10 years. In fact, I've known my husband for 12 years and he has never seen me pass out. But to this day, when a panic attack starts, I immediately think I'm going to pass out.
The fainting actually stopped after I had my 2nd heart surgery at 17 years old. No one ever linked the fainting to my heart condition, but it seems pretty obvious there was a connection. That doesn't stop me from thinking I'm going to pass out when a panic attack starts though. Something else could be wrong with my heart, I'll think, the doctors messed up before.
I found out about my heart condition at 15 years old, around the time the panic attacks started. I had one less invasive surgery at 16, which ended up causing more problems, so I had open heart surgery at 17. Then they collapsed my lung. I was diagnosed with the asthma after that, although again, no official cause was given.
So you can imagine that when a panic attack mimics heart and lung symptoms, it's pretty terrifying when one would come. And that, of course, would make the panic attack worse. Like I said, vicious cycle.
I made a lot of trips to the ER for what turned out to be panic attacks between 17 and 18 years old because no one was messing around. And when you volunteer and hang out at the fire department all the time, and mention that your chest hurts to a group of EMTs who are very protective of you and know about your heart surgery, you find yourself in the back of an ambulance before you can blink.
I so appreciate that even after this happened a couple of times and it ended up being a panic attack, they cared enough about me to not take any chances. My parents didn't take chances either, if I wasn't at the FD when it happened they would take me. If I was, as soon as I called them from the back of the ambulance, they would jump in the car to meet me at the ER. Without fail, every time.
If you are reading this, and you do not have anxiety or panic attacks, but you know someone who does, love them through it. Don't tell them they are crazy. Don't tell them it's all in their head. Don't tell them "it's just a panic attack." What if this time it's not? The physical symptoms are real, and they mimic symptoms of serious medical emergencies. If they think something might really be wrong, take them to ER to make sure it's not more serious than a panic attack. And if it happens again, do it again. This is especially important in the beginning as they are learning what a panic attack feels like, and what works for them to calm the feelings. This communicates that you love them, and that you don't think they are crazy, and that you still love them. This is super important for someone with anxiety.
Eventually, I learned how to talk myself through a panic attack, and my family and friends learned to talk me through ones that I couldn't talk myself through. And I learned to let them. I didn't need to go to the ER for a panic attack anymore because as I started to calm myself down the physical symptoms would begin to subside, showing me that it was not more serious, which would help me calm down more, which...you get the idea again. This is a positive twist on the cycle.
I have had seasons where panic attacks make daily living nearly impossible. Like the year where I couldn't drive on the highway without the worst panic attacks I've ever had. My life revolved around the fear of driving on the highway. It's strange because driving around used to be one of the things I did to calm myself. Until, one day I had a panic attack behind the wheel. And then it happened again. After that I was so terrified of having a panic attack, and what if I really passed out driving, that I would bring them on as soon as I got on the highway.
There were times when I had to pull over on the side of the highway because I was shaking so bad and so scared. It got to the point where I would do whatever I had to do to not drive on the highway. If I had to or wanted to go somewhere that required highway travel I would beg people to go with me. Sometimes, I would just have them drive, but when I was trying to get over it, I would drive, but have them there in case a panic attack started. Then they would drive.
This was a few years ago, and I can honestly say I can usually drive on the highway now without a problem. Rarely, a panic attack will start (like a few months ago when I was completely lost, and my GPS wasn't working, and it was dark), but I use the tools I now have for the battle, and call on the One who calms me.
It has been a long road to get to the place today where I can say that anxiety and panic do not control me. They are not in charge of my life anymore. I have peace and joy most days instead of crippling fear and worry. And when it does come, I have Jesus to lean into, and the tools He has given me to battle it, so it is not crippling anymore. It is my hope that this series and the ebook that I am working on will help lead you to find healing in Him as well, and give you some of the tools He has given me. If you would like to be among the first to know when the ebook is ready please subscribe below.
But before Jesus began to heal my anxiety, it was not only crippling, it became completely paralyzing. That is what I will share in Part 3.
Before I go, let me share something life changing that I learned about why I was getting panic attacks in department stores, restaurants, and other public places. It's the lights. When we have a panic attack everything looks funny, it's hard to explain, but I've seen it explained as a feeling of "unreality." Fluorescent lights are always flickering, even when we don't see it, and they actually cause us to see things in the same way that we see things when we have the "unreality" feeling. This actually tricks our brain into thinking we are having a panic attack. And because of that cycle, it causes a panic attack to start. Now that I know that, I get much fewer panic attacks in those places. I no longer go in with the fear of having one, so that helps. And if I do have one, I can usually tell myself it's the lights, find somewhere comfortable to look or move to a different isle, and I'm okay. So if you have panic attacks in those places and you don't know why, hopefully that helps.