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We Need to Talk About Grief Response Panic Attacks

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When I first developed panic attacks 20 years ago, it was a nightmare. It took a good year to learn to manage it, and for the next decade, I had steps in place that kept the panic attacks at a minimum. Not to say it was easy, it definitely wasn’t. Especially exposure therapy and trial and error with medications. I remember being on my bedroom floor, holding a Bible and praying, for a week straight, unable to leave the hallway outside of my room. I remember my husband and his mother trying everything to get me to eat. I remember when they finally coerced me to a hospital. I remember how much they cared and wish I could thank them today for that first intervention. I repressed a lot about that time. When I try to think about how I moved past the panic, I can barely remember now.

Barely remembering is a problem because in the last month following my grandmother’s death, I very suddenly developed daily panic attacks and agoraphobia I hadn’t felt in decades. My usual methods stopped working. If you get stuck in terror long enough, you’ll do anything to make it stop. I nearly did, but only nearly.

I felt like I was dishonoring my grandmother’s legacy by panicking over her death. More so, because I couldn’t seem to get even a handhold in this cliff of terror. I wanted to call my family, but they were also grieving and I didn’t want to add to their stress. I thought I had accepted her death and been through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. I held no anger, delusion, denial, depression or regret when the new panic started. I felt I had accepted her death. Apparently I was wrong or this new panic wouldn’t have surfaced.

To have all of your medications, coping skills, triggers and anxieties reset so suddenly can be debilitating. I can’t find the words to describe the feeling of pure desperation when I found myself without any tools to deal with my new panic. Twenty years of hard work and progress suddenly vanished, like holding smoke in your hands. The good news is that this time, I knew what the problem was. This time I knew that building coping skills, medications and therapy would work. The only question left was how?

Like a child learning to walk again, I have started practicing different coping skills. My doctor has replaced all of my meds with new ones. My therapist is working hard to find me new skills and techniques to try. Every one of my providers agree I am having grief related panic attacks associated with complicated grief disorder. Something I had never heard of before, but explains why these new triggers and attacks have happened. Sadly there is not a lot of research in this area. Our goal right now is to treat this as if I were new to panic disorder, and so far, like a flower slowly blooming, I am able to breathe again.

What I really want to convey to others is this blindsided me and I don’t want something like this to sledgehammer someone else who may be in a similar situation. I want people to know that not everyone fits into the classic five stages of grief, that some of us will respond differently, in my case panicking and agoraphobia. You can resolve the new panic attacks.  You just have to reset your treatment plan and keep an open mind to skills or medications that didn’t work before, may work now. Try everything.

I really wished I had found more articles about complicated grief, so I didn’t feel like I was watching myself spiral with no explanation. I literally thought that my grandmother’s death broke my mental capacity, I thought I would find no way through the fear and would end up in a state hospital forever. That didn’t happen. I had to keep fighting, keep trying, keep hoping, keep reaching out for help.

In the end, I did get help that is working, and you can too. Do not be afraid to ask your doctor or therapist for more help. My goal was to stay out of the hospital. My doctor, support person and therapist made that happen for me. I can’t thank them enough. Though I’m not through to the other side yet, I can now see it, and I can have hope again.

Getty image by bananajazz

Originally published: May 16, 2021
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