How I Finally Conquered My Panic Attacks (and you can too)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Anxiety

We all acquire anxiety issues a little differently. We all get through things a little differently as well.  Some use cognitive behavioral skills, including humor techniques, deep breathing, thought replacement, self compassion, mindfulness and vocalized defensiveness to get through their panic attacks or scary thoughts. Today my guest poster takes you on her journey towards healing. 

By: Misty Browne

As I step out of the SUV at the airport, my boss’s mother asks me if I’m feeling OK. 

“I’m fine, just a little under the weather,” I respond. 

In line for security I get the same question as the wand runs across my body. I nod and move on. By the time I’m at my gate I can’t breathe. I rush to the bathroom. “Maybe I’m getting the flu,” I tell myself. I splash cold water on my face. Outside of being a touch pale, the mirror reflects green eyes and brown hair falling neatly over my shoulders, the same as always. But I feel different. I feel like I’m going to die. I can’t breathe and my heart is pounding so hard I can hear it.

I sit on the toilet, my mind racing as I dial my doctor’s office. I beg the nurse to let me talk to him, convinced I’m having a heart attack. “It’s an anxiety attack,” he tells me. “Take some deep breaths and put your head between your legs.” I can’t even listen to him anymore—talking just makes it worse. Click. Talking makes my throat constrict further. I end the call.

Walking back to the gate I ask the attendant how long the flight is. Four hours. No layovers. My harried mind calculates the distance from Texas to Michigan and the feelings increase. I’ve flown so many times before! What’s wrong with me? I think about people who have a fear of flying, but that’s not me. This is something else. Something’s wrong.

The attendant approaches me and asks one last time if I’ll be getting on the plane. I look at her with tears in my eyes and shake my head. Unable to even speak. She informs me that my luggage will arrive back in a couple of days. Dialing my office, I break the news to my boss. Then I quickly walk outside and breathe in fresh air until my husband arrives to pick me up. 

“How do you feel,” he asks incredulously. 

“I’m not dizzy anymore and my heart has slowed down but I want to go to the emergency room. I know something is wrong.”

As we speed down the freeway, I know this is the end. I look out the window, preparing to say goodbye to my four-year-old son. 

That was my first experience with anxiety. A few years ago, I finally realized the probable cause of my first panic attack. I loved my job and adored traveling but my boss had recently been pressuring me with a larger workload. My son was about to start kindergarten. Both were emotionally and mentally draining circumstances. 

Whatever triggered it, my life changed. I won’t say for the better or for the worse, because I believe we go through everything for a reason. Having anxiety and panic attacks has molded me into the woman I am today. I’ve learned how to cope with life, with anxiety, for the past 15 years. I’m proud to say that I am stronger because of anxiety and I’ve learned to love myself despite the hardships I face every day. 

I followed-up with my primary care physician after my trip to the emergency room and since have been on every medication from benzodiazepines, anti-depressants, and mood stabilizers to anti-hallucinogenics. I’ve been given diagnoses ranging from Generalized Anxiety Disorder to Bipolar Type II. I’ve been under the care of therapists and psychiatrists. But the panic remained.

Sure, there have been months that I’ve dealt well and had no anxiety symptoms, but the attacks always came back, swooping down like birds of prey at the most inopportune times. And over the years, I’ve gone from outgoing and sociable to a shell of a human who avoids every grocery store in town and finds excuses to hide from anxiety provoking situations. 

Since I don’t have insurance it’s been hard for me to maintain proper professional help. I often don’t have the cash to schedule regular appointments so I’ve been left to seek answers elsewhere. That means relying on online programs, books, and advice from friends and strangers, including but not limited to:

Many of these I continue to hold fast to, but I like to face issues head-on and see results quickly. And anxiety thwarted every attempt to defeat it. Anxiety has always been the one adversary I dreaded challenging.  

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack you can appreciate what I’m talking about. That’s why, when last month I stumbled upon what appeared to be a new way of approaching my anxious self, I was excited yet remained skeptical. It took almost three days of researching the program before I even felt ready to see if it worked. 

It’s a combination of mindfulness – living in the present – and radical acceptance. As cheesy as it sounds the basis for this simple program is accepting your anxious thoughts and feelings and going with them instead of fighting them. Then asking for more of those same feelings. 

Feel your palms getting sweaty? Demand that your palms drip sweat. Heart pounding and you feel like you’re about to have a heart attack? Demand that you have the biggest heart attack anyone has ever had! Can’t breathe because your throat’s tight with fear? Beg for your throat to close off tighter and never take another breath again! 

What the hell?

No way, was I going to demand that the awful and terrifying feelings I was already experiencing, get worse. Someone must certainly be crazier than me for suggesting that. On top of that, once you’re riding the waves of the anxiety, you must begin a countdown while telling your anxious thoughts they only have a small amount of time to do their worst. Keep telling the feelings that they are limited in their time. Once you’re done, they are done and you are going to continue with your day. 

I decided that it was my only option left. And the next time I went to the laundromat, I had my first opportunity to see if it worked.

What happened was an internal dialogue that I thought I’d never have with myself.

“Ok -- I accept these feelings and I welcome them. I feel my palms getting sweaty and I want more of that. I feel dizzy and like I can’t breathe. Make me dizzier and close my airway off. My heart is pounding. If I’m going to have a heart attack, then let’s do this right now because I don’t have time for this. Now I feel lightheaded and I might pass out. Well, let’s pass out.” 

But I didn’t pass out. My anxious feelings didn’t get worse. In fact, they stayed the same and I suddenly found that even though I hated these feelings I was still standing in the same place and not running for safety. As I began to accept the sensations, I began the countdown. I reminded the feelings that once I hit zero they were no longer a threat and they could leave me be.

Suddenly I felt my palms dry up, my dizziness fade and my heart rate had slowed to where I no longer felt it in my throat. For the first time in 15 years I hadn’t run for the safety of my car or frantically looked around for a chair to sit in. I hadn’t even blurted out to the strangers near me that I was having a panic attack just in case they needed to call an ambulance. 

I had trusted my body and my mind to get me through the normal feelings that accompany an adrenaline release. My body was convinced that there was a lion ready to chase me around the washers. This time I had the guts to reassure myself that I could and would make it through alive. 

The past three weeks have been an emotional rollercoaster. I’ve calmed myself in anxious moments and even averted a full-blown attack. Despite the good days, I’ve also had to leave a store because I just couldn’t find the determination to face the anxiety one minute longer.  It’s a balancing act between trusting myself and giving in to the anxious symptoms. However, I’ve found I’m more courageous than I ever gave myself credit for.

Last week I went into the supermarket on my own for the first time in three years. I purchased a few items and stood in line to check out and never ran. I accepted the intense fear for 20 minutes, stayed with it, and while the anxiety never went away completely, I made it through. I trusted myself to complete a basic task that many take for granted. 

For me, anxiety and panic attacks have become a staple in my everyday life. Where I used to see them as an enemy and something to fear, I now welcome the anxiety as a protector; a guard dog if you will. It just so happens my guard dog is more eager to bark than most. 

I can live with that. 

Next month I’m facing one of my biggest challenges yet. I’ll be getting on a plane and taking an international flight for the first time in 15 years. Talk about emotionally and mentally draining circumstances! In a way, I feel like I’m going back to that first day when I felt my life slipping away. In reality I’m starting a new one and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.

Misty is a 38 year old mother of one who resides in Texas. She is a nurse and mental health advocate and writes for various websites. You can find her on her blog and be sure to follow her on Facebook and Twitter

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Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions and Balance Your Life
A guide to using DBT to decrease arousal, manage emotions and decrease difficulties.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.

When Panic Attacks
Detailed overview of cognitive behavioral techniques for changing negative thought patterns