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When I Realized These Physical Sensations Were My Version of Panic Attacks


For so many years I had no idea what they were. It has only been in the last two weeks that I have made the connection of the physical sensations I’ve experienced and how they coincided with anxious times in my life. Everything I ever remember hearing or reading about panic attacks mention shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest tightness/pain and hyperventilation. I have never had any of these symptoms, so when I have had extremely anxious experiences, I thought they were not actual panic attacks. I would try to explain them away.

Recently, I was blown away when I realized that my trembling, sweating, nausea, hot/cold flashes, lightheadedness and dizziness were my version of a full-on panic attack. Thinking back, I can remember times in my life when these symptoms would come on inexplicably — most memorably when coat shopping at Macy’s when I was 23 and getting ready to travel north. I vividly recall sitting down with my back against the counter and thinking the room was spinning and I couldn’t decide if I was going to pass out or die of heat. The sensations were intense, and my mom was with me and very concerned. It passed in a matter of minutes, and I was able to return to my shopping, albeit a little more tired and disoriented.

This has happened before taking tests, giving presentations, going to parties or conferences, on the first days of school (both as a student and teacher), on airplanes, in crowds, at extreme heights (I should stop here as the list could go on and on)… and I never, ever associated them with my anxiety.

Just as I have written about depression in the past and how my outward symptoms were not “typical” (although I am reading more and more about “high-functioning” and hidden depression, which I resemble incredibly), I shouldn’t be all that surprised that yet again my anxiety is different, too. My friends and family can attest that their is little to nothing that is “normal” or “typical” about me. My younger daughter proclaims on a regular basis, “Normal is boring.” However, I think I might like to try it sometime. I do think I will have to radically accept that’s not going to happen and move forward with a new awareness.

Now that I know, I hope I can (remember and actually) do the following the next time I have a panic attack:

  • Give myself permission to acknowledge rather than question what is happening in my body.
  • Accept that something triggered my panic and not blame myself for bringing on the symptoms.
  • Wait and stay in the situation (for a little) to take the time to consider different options.
  • Breathe deeply, ask myself what are the odds of what I am fearing actually happening… And remember that I am fearing a future possibility and should try to reengage in the present.
  • And when it ends, I will be grateful that it has ended rather than critical of myself for having anxiety.

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