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The Trick Is to Keep Breathing: My Experience With Panic Attacks

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My chest is tight, my heart is pumping as if I am running long distance, my body is dumping the potent mix of fight or flight hormones (adrenaline) and the urgent need to get away from wherever I’m at hits like a cartoon dumbbell dropped on my head. The sky is falling and I cannot stop it.

Many of you know the symptoms or have experienced them too.

Panic attacks are very real, and the physiological response to them is nothing short of amazing — that the brain perceives a threat so dire it goes into self-preservation mode and triggers all the reactions in your body to do exactly that.

My first was quite bad. I was struggling to find parking at my university and was running late for a class anyway. I was driving around in the vain hopes of finding a place to park and get to class at some point — it was the end of the class period prior to mine — and I was at the main intersection at my school that turns into a miniature model of the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. The realization of all those people out there on the crosswalks and pouring out of the buildings was too much. The panic attack set in and gave me such a scare I had to fight to maintain enough control to get back to my apartment five minutes away, where I promptly remained amped up for a good while, calling or messaging friends to talk about it and blogging about the experience on my social media. Then, after a couple hours, I crashed… hard. The body is only meant to persist in its survival mode for a short amount of time, to win the fight or avoid it entirely, and then it goes on a type of “offline” mode while it recovers. I woke up the next morning having missed my two classes that day.

Now, I’d known coming out of the service that I had major depression with social anxiety to boot, but I’d never experienced anything like that panic attack. I’ve had many more since then, though a surprising minority are actually triggered by external factors, and sadly, some of those have occurred when I was surrounded by people I deeply enjoy the company of and love, and vice versa.

The majority, and the worst, are the ones that come on for absolutely no reason whatsoever. My most recent one — last month — is a good example. I was walking from class at the campus to my bicycle — I was studying abroad near Osaka, Japan. There was not another person in sight except the school’s baseball team practicing in their batting cages a great distance away — certainly not close enough for me to get edgy about them being there. Then my chest seized, my heart pounded and walking a straight line to the parking area became difficult. I arrived there in time to throw my backpack, scarf and jacket on the ground and grab the rails surrounding the parking area, clutching my chest. A friend once likened some of the symptoms to a heart attack. This is not unusual at all as both share similar symptoms.

Then comes combating them. As the same named song from Garbage states: “the trick is to keep breathing.” It may be difficult — it is difficult, in my experience — but try to calm yourself. Rhythmic breathing helps greatly in slowing the tachycardia and minimizes the symptoms some. Most of all, you can control it! From my experience, the sudden loss of control and one-track mindedness to escape my situation is complete chaos. But, you can control things in the midst of it, seize those opportunities and they can help you immensely.

Admittedly, I am currently prescribed and sometimes use medication to calm my general levels of anxiety to prevent escalation to panic/anxiety attacks. However, medication should always be discussed with your healthcare providers and mental illness experts, and sometimes it isn’t the answer — I’ve experienced attacks even when taking my prescription to prevent them.

It is quite difficult to go on with a daily routine knowing you can be brought to your knees at any moment by your illnesses. It may even pressure us to not do things we know we should do. Do not do this! It can be very difficult to do the simplest thing, but as I reason with myself, “please don’t.” It usually brings on only more problems for your anxiety to worry about, or in my case, my depression to lay me low with. I will certainly share my experiences on this in future posts.

Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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Thinkstock photo via wattanachon

Originally published: July 7, 2017
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