A Panic Attack Story

Left: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems

At some point in my adult life I began to experience panic attacks, those inexplicable sympathetic nervous system events where the fight-or-flight response goes berserk. Over the past decade the number of panic attacks I experienced has gradually increased, and I probably average one every 2-3 months or so.

Sometimes these attacks are fairly mild, limiting themselves to a racing heartbeat, sweating, nausea, and/or a sense of dread. I usually work through these milder episodes without being much more than inconvenienced, and sometimes I can talk myself through the irrational thoughts that accompany a milder panic attack.

Then there are the panic attacks where I become almost paralyzed with fear, like the one I experienced this afternoon. I am writing about this intensely frightening episode for two reasons: one as an exercise in personal catharsis of my irrational-but-very-real demons, and a second to reach out to other panic attack sufferers in a spirit of solidarity and information exchange. Perhaps by passing along tips and strategies that work we might assist each other in getting a better handle on future panic attacks.

I went out to lunch with my wife, and as we drove home I felt some heart palpitations. She dropped me off and then went to do some shopping, and I remember telling her that everything was fine, and indeed it seemed that the momentary racing of my heart was just a passing physiological quirk.

I walked into the kitchen and started doing the dishes, and then I became convinced that a someone (or someones) meaning me harm were in the house with me. Of course, no matter how many times I looked behind me, there was no one there, but rational thinking is superseded by the rapidly growing fear.

I sat down in a chair and stared at the closet door, which was open a crack. Thanks to my adrenaline-filled nervous system I imagined that someone was watching me from behind this door. This is when the panic attack kicked into overdrive, and for about 15 minutes I was in that near-paralytic state where every shadow movement (real or imagined in the normal afternoon lighting) was the first step in the last minutes of my life.

It is difficult to describe the confluence of dread, fright, and anger that result from the overdose of adrenaline in such a severe attack. My fears were somewhat vague beyond "someone is going to do me harm," and my invented tormentors did not have names. For a few minutes they were faceless police officers after me for some petty traffic infraction I imagined they wanted me for, and then I began to believe that the unseen interlopers meant to kill me because of something I said or wrote.

Again, logic falls by the wayside in this clenched-fists, gritted-teeth state.

After the episode peaked, I managed to call my wife to hear a human voice and to try to hasten my return to reality. All told the worst of the attack lasted about 30 minutes, though the nausea stuck with me for another two hours.

Later I can almost laugh at the temporary insanity, and I can list dozens of pieces of data that my mind chose to ignore in its chemically-driven derealization:

* My dogs were not barking.
* There was no one in the closet.
* There was no one in any room of the house.

And so on. Yet during the adrenaline-fueled psychosis rational thought seems like a tiny voice in a cacophony of irrationality.

For me panic attacks are most likely to occur when the following factors come into play:

1. I am sleep-deprived and exhausted (my system is already stressed).
2. I compensate for sleep deprivation with extra coffee (chemical volatility and nervous system stimulant).
3. I am alone in the house (no one there to help me stay anchored).

On two occasions panic attacks occurred while driving. One time the attack was so severe that I could not drive across a mile-long section of elevated highway and I parked on the shoulder until it passed, while the other time I managed to grit my teeth and drive the remaining two miles back to my house.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to post suggestions, tips, panic attack experiences, or any other thoughts related to the topic. I look forward to reading the thoughts of other people plagued by panic attacks, as well as any information folks might like to share about the topic.