“Your heart looks strong”, the doctor said, as I lay shirtless on the hospital bed with heart monitor electrodes stuck all over me. My heart rate and blood pressure were coming down and I’d decided that I wasn’t going to die that night after all.
An hour earlier I’d just had my first ever panic attack and I thought I wouldn’t make it. I don’t mean that figuratively like I do when I’m laying in bed with man flu, full of overwhelming self pity. I mean I literally thought I was losing my life and having a heart attack or powerful stroke. That I wouldn’t see my kids grow old. I may be a drama queen at times, but I can’t tell you how intensely I believed this was the end for me.
Once it became apparent that I was having a panic attack, the nurse in emergency gave me some valium and settled me on a bed, and within half an hour I felt calm and relaxed. Slightly embarrassed, but safe and warm. Like I didn’t want to leave, to be honest. Laying in a hospital bed with some valium inside me, and nurses fussing around me is a feeling I got to love over a period of time - although luckily it’s over a decade since that’s happened to me.
You can’t die from a panic attack, it just feels like you’re going to.
I’d just been at home watching TV that evening, when I had what almost felt like an out of body experience. It’s hard to explain, but it was almost like I felt bigger than my normal size and the room was becoming slightly smaller around me. The TV started to feel tiny and far away. I tried to relax and started to panic when I couldn’t take a deep breathe. My chest felt tight and suddenly my arms started to tingle and feel numb. Everyone knows that a tingly left arm equals heart attack, and so panic really started to take over. I started developing tunnel vision and had an intense feeling of fear, and that I wanted to escape myself. My vision was flashing, I was dizzy, and I was sweating and shaking.
My wife drove me to casualty and they looked after me brilliantly. Two hours later I was home in bed sleeping like a baby.
I was no stranger to anxiety. I’d seen a psychologist about a few issues and had been identified as having general anxiety disorder, signs of Depression, and mild OCD. My real problem was that I was drinking too much, but I was never honest about that with anyone in the medical profession, so the mental side effects continued unabated. The night that my first panic attack occurred, I was recovering from a massive hangover and was trying not to drink for the evening - it was like my central nervous system went into shock at the prospect.
Whereas anxiety is a slow burn that nags away at you, like an ongoing low level of manageable panic, a panic attack seems to erupt out of nothing and overtake you. It’s like the physical manifestation of heightened anxiety, provoking a fight or flight reaction in your body - and largely that’s what it is. Your sympathetic nervous system perceives a threat and adrenaline floods your body. In fact it’s a hormonal avalanche, as oestrogen, testosterone, cortisol and others consume your system. Neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin also get involved. The reason for the tunnel vision is blood leaving your head to fight in other parts of the body.
The causes of panic attacks can vary from stress to social anxiety, PTSD, depression, and drug or alcohol use. It can be also be impacted by smoking, excess caffeine or stress. Unfortunately I had a mixture of almost all of those things going on at the time.
The treatments are varied and I used most of them, too. Although I should point out, that the panic attacks were not what I was treating, they were really the final indicator that I was leading a life that needed changing.
The biggest thing I gave up was alcohol. Not having hangovers anymore really calmed my nervous system. And with more time on my hands I picked up my gym routine again. Exercise releases endorphins which help with settling stress levels. I also started a bit of yoga and meditation which also helped with this further - and helped my breathing immensely.
Breathing work and therapy eventually meant that the panic attacks disappeared completely.
Once alcohol was removed, therapy actually started to help. You need honesty for therapy to be properly effective.
The combination of lifestyle changes, breathing work and therapy eventually meant that the panic attacks disappeared completely. Although, to be honest, the anxiety didn’t. The life I started living made me far calmer, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely rid of my anxious feelings. Either through nature or nurture I have an element of fear that I always seem to have to deal with. But panic attacks are different - they appear from nowhere and overwhelm you, and that hasn’t happened for me in over 10 years.
One small silver lining I pounced upon when first reading up on panic attacks at the time, was that they occur more commonly in people with above-average intelligence.
I have to say that gave me little comfort as I lay topless in the Manly emergency unit wondering if I’d make it through the night. Like many emotional and mental issues, panic attacks are not a sign of weakness. They’re often more likely to come from a sense of trying to be strong in awful circumstances. Panic attacks might not kill you in themselves, but not dealing with them in the long term might send you down a path that could.