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When Panic Attacks Feel Like a Monster Growing Inside of Me

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This past year has been a healthy one. My daughter, who is a liver transplant recipient, only spent one night in the ER when she had a tummy virus and got a bit dehydrated (knock on wood).

We have new health insurance we selected when we started our own company, and it is wonderful. They actually cover what they say they will, without loopholes, without struggles, and when I call in, I get an actual person within one ring who personally works to resolve my issue. Absurd, right?  Things have been fairly quiet. Dare I say… “normal”?

Why is it, then, that I am struggling?

This past year, I started having panic attacks — some so intense they required a trip to the ER. I recognize, now, that I’ve had them before. I just didn’t know what they were.

If you’ve never really had a panic attack, it’s easy to write it off. It’s easy to misunderstand how debilitating these things can be. It’s more than feeling a little anxious. It’s not as simple as just calming down.

Panic attacks sneak up when I’m not expecting them. I may not be thinking about anything in particular at that moment. I might be doing laundry, or checking Facebook, or playing with my kids. I’m not dwelling on anything stressful, in most cases. It usually doesn’t happen when I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed or worried.

It starts out as a dull ache in my belly. At first I think I might be hungry. Then it becomes an intense, burning pain, banding around my torso. It feels like my stomach is melting. I get nauseous, I begin to sweat, my breath becomes shallow, I get dizzy, I might throw up. I become scared. Terrified. I feel like a monster is trying to claw out of my skin, screaming inside me, but it can’t get out. It’s trapped.

The monster is me.

These attacks usually occur around something to do with my daughter’s health. I understand they are caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — the reaction I should have had during more stressful times is buried in my hypothalamus, the more primitive part of my brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and it is triggered by experiences that pull up those memories and, suddenly, in a quiet moment, that emotion comes rushing out, like a bottle under pressure that has been uncorked. But, I don’t know how to release it. My reaction is to tense up. It scares the hell out of me. I’m trying to push the cork back in.

So, telling me to “calm down” or “just don’t think about it,” doesn’t help. I’m not thinking about it. I’m just scared my body is reacting in a way completely beyond my control. The monster is driving.

More than once, the terror and pain became so intense I remember thinking, “This is worse than child birth, and I don’t know when it’s going to end, or when it might come back.” I’ve had three babies. Two were completely natural births without any drugs.

It can be depressing. It adds stress to an already full plate. It overwhelms me. It completely derails me. I am afraid to go out because I’m worried I’ll have an attack and be stuck, unable to get home, with three kids, and no one who understands to help.

I want so desperately for someone to understand. I’m not “crazy.” I just have a monster inside me.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: July 18, 2016
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