Goodbye Panic Attacks #1

Making Fear Your Friend

Panic Attacks. Yep, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Am I dying? Am I losing my mind? Am I a terrible human being? It’s so much fun to be involuntarily engaged in a full-fledged fear response for seemingly no reason, isn’t it? This series of posts is going to document my experience with panic attacks, starting from the first one I ever had, and all of the tools I used to stop them in their tracks and prevent them from occurring in the future. If you struggle with panic attacks, I hope this series is helpful for you. Please consider sharing with a friend or loved one you think could benefit from this information. If you have specific questions or want to share your journey, get in touch.

I’ll never forget the day I had my first panic attack. It happened so quickly and changed the next six years of my life until I was able to resolve the underlying issues. I landed my dream internship after my junior year of college and was working in a high-rise building Monday-Friday. The weekend prior to this first panic attack was jam-packed with activities, alcohol, and an inadequate amount of sleep.

The morning of my first panic attack, I completed my usual routine. Wake up, put on my suit, drive through Starbucks, and order a breakfast sandwich with a double-shot latte. Drive through an hour of LA traffic, and arrive at my job so caffeinated I probably could’ve skipped the elevator and jumped straight up to the eleventh floor.

This morning when I walked into work I had been tasked with the riveting duty of compiling and consolidating several Excel databases. I knew I needed to lock in and get this done quickly, so I grabbed my monitor and set up shop in a conference room. About fifteen minutes into this activity I noticed feeling a bit off, I was stressed and felt like the screens I was working on were too small and hindering efficiency. About five minutes later, it happened.

I started feeling like the room I was in was shrinking, and like I needed to run out of there. I tried to stay calm and then started feeling like I was losing control of my body. My first initial feeling was guilt. I thought to myself “I must have done something to screw my brain up, this is what my parents warned me about as a kid, they’re going to kill me.” I also felt like I was dying, my heart was pounding, and I thought I might be having a heart attack.

Before continuing with this post, I want to acknowledge that everyone will experience panic attacks differently. I’ve spoken with a lot of people that have struggled with panic attacks and for some, they’re in completely random moments, for some it’s only when driving on the freeway, and for some, it could be the sight of someone who looks like someone they were close with who passed away. Whatever your experience is with panic attacks, the tools for freedom from panic all apply in similar ways.

I rushed out of the office and didn’t know what to do, so I went down to the parking garage and started pacing up and down. I must’ve walked all the way up and down the parking garage twenty-five times. I called my parents who were very kind and didn’t understand exactly what was going on. “What do you mean you’re freaking out for no reason?”

I told them it felt like I was dying and stuck in the middle of a car accident.

The scariest part of this first panic attack was feeling like I was losing my mind. I worried that I was going insane and would end up on the news as one of those crazed Florida man stories. I felt so ashamed, like I had committed a crime and was being punished by God.

Fortunately on this first day, after maxing out my Fitbit’s daily step limit in the parking garage, and talking to my parents and a doctor, I was able to calm down and make it through the rest of the work. We had a work dinner that night, and I remember at the dinner being so incredibly grateful I was feeling better.

The next morning, I woke up for work and immediately felt the fear of the fear. “What if it happens again?” “What if my boss finds out?” “What if everyone finds out?” “What if I’m a terrible person?” These thoughts were running across my mind and at the time, I didn’t have the tools to stop them. Fortunately, the morning went smoothly, however, I had a work lunch with my bosses and a client. This second panic attack is what sent me over the edge.

I was sitting at the lunch table and thought my life was ending before my very eyes. My heart was racing, I couldn’t think or form proper sentences, I couldn’t eat anything. I got in my boss’s car and he dropped me off at my car and I put my seat all the way back and started crying. I couldn’t drive anywhere, I was in the middle of a panic attack that felt ten times more severe than the one I’d experienced the day before.

My ex-girlfriend (one of the sweetest humans in the world, bless her heart) had struggled a lot with anxiety and I called her, and thank GOD she answered. She told me I was having a panic attack and that they were terrifying and that it was going to be okay. I called my dad and told him I was going to go to the emergency room because I thought I was dying and bless his heart, he drove all the way up to LA from San Diego to make sure I was okay.

So I arrive at the emergency room with my ex-girlfriend, and my dad arrived shortly after. The nurses took my vitals and assured me I wasn’t dying, that I was just having a panic attack, and suggested I see a psychiatrist. “A Psychiatrist?” I thought. I didn’t want to go on medications. I envisioned the rest of my life as this dark scary place where I’d have panic attacks and have to be on strong medications (at the time, I was scared of medications due to a bad first experience in high school).

In the following weeks, I had several more severe panic attacks, ended up in the emergency room one more time, and found a good doctor in LA. I must’ve called fifty therapists trying to schedule an appointment as soon as possible to figure out what in the world had changed and why I was now experiencing these panic attacks. The doctor I saw suggested I go on an SSRI, however, due to my previous experience with SSRIs, I opted out and instead was prescribed a low dose of Ativan to take before sleep and as needed throughout the day.

I remember deciding in my mind that if there was a way for these panic attacks to start, there had to be a way to make them stop and I desperately wanted to figure out how. In the meantime, I took my medication as prescribed and only ever used Ativan if I was having a severe panic attack. Having the Ativan handy was incredibly helpful, just knowing that I had a fix in case a severe panic attack set in was incredibly comforting.

This was not a fun fate going into my senior year of college. Afraid of having panic attacks, feeling ashamed and like there was something wrong with me, and not knowing how to solve this problem. I started reading book after book, talking to different practitioners, and scouring the internet for answers.

I had one doctor’s appointment and, while the intention was positive, the doctor left me feeling worse. He said “Chris, unfortunately, you’re going to have these for life. It’s common, and nothing to be ashamed of.” I remember walking out of his office and thinking, no I’m not. I’m going to find a way out of these panic attacks.

Now here’s where we start getting into the tools and tricks I’ve learned, and these will continue as part of the Goodbye Panic Attacks series. Some tips are simple, and some more elaborate, and they are what allowed me to become panic-attack-free.

As much as I want to give this information out for free, sometimes I get hungry. Thank you so much for supporting my writing and helping build Mental Martial Arts!

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