Help I can’t Breathe!!

I was in the car driving, trying to imagine myself in a field out in the country with abundant space surrounding me. For a minute I was able to keep the image in my head, but in a flash the field was gone and I became hyper-aware that I was in fact in the city, with a mass of cars and people all around. When this occurred everything began to compress, suffocating me, as life itself seemed to condense to a finite point.

It was a panic attack but I didn’t know it at the time. I pulled off the road and into the parking lot of a storage unit facility. I got out of the car because I had to escape the constriction of the inside of my car, which felt like it was engulfing me at that moment. My breath came out in short quick bursts and I was certain that I was going to pass out or throw up…it felt like I was going to die. I knew at that moment I had two choices: I could go inside the storage unit place, lay on the floor and ask them to call an ambulance, or I could call my friend and see if he could talk me down.

My buddy had experiences with panic attacks in the past, and because of this he was able to immediately talk me down, tell me that I was going to be okay, but that I should walk around and try to slow down my breath because I was hyperventilating. I walked over to the nearby drainage ditch and began to walk in circles as I felt the tingling and numbness in my extremities recede.

However, I wasn’t out of the woods yet and over the next hour and a half I made a number of failed attempts to get back in my car and drive the ten miles home to my apartment. Each time I was unable to make it out of the parking lot without lapsing back into another panic attack. I was stuck!

Why Did My Panic Attack Occur in My Early 30’s?

It was genuinely one of the worst experiences of my life, because I had no control over my body, my mind, or anything that was occuring. For years I had suffered from elevated anxiety but for the most part I was able to keep it under control. I could talk myself through it, or at the very least compartmentalize my feelings (which is not good), but what I had experienced over the months leading to my panic attack, was a total failure of my coping mechanisms. I could feel something bad coming on as I began to feel myself unravel, and I began to feel as if I could no longer function normally in my day to day life. While this was probably enough to ensure the onset of a panic attack, the whole situation was accelerated when I went through a traumatic experience that involved a severe betrayal by a good friend that just pushed me over the edge.

Later on I discovered that my experience was not atypical and that for the most part panic attacks occur in men somewhere between late adolescents and their early 30’s. In fact looking back now it makes sense that I had a panic attack, and in turn was diagnosed with a panic disorder because an individual can only live with elevated levels of anxiety for so long, without doing anything about it, before that anxiety boils over.

I remember times in the past when I would go to the mall and be unable to walk around because my anxiety got so bad. Or when I was in college, everyday that I walked through the campus I felt as if all eyes were on me, watching and judging me, so I always carried with me a tremendous amount of stress, that interestingly enough I believed others experienced as well. It turns out that these feelings are indicative of a panic disorder and not everyone experienced life with such a tense and anxious lense as I did. But I didn’t know that at the time.

Surviving the Attack

When I was finally able to make it out of the parking lot, I drove home and experienced 3 days of cycling panic attacks— to the point where by the end of the week I was catatonic and unable to speak. By this point I was truly scared because I couldn’t even reach out to call my psychiatrist and ask for help.  Every time I picked up the phone and dialed, I’d have to hang up because it was just too much for me. Luckily, that same friend who talked me through the first day came and picked me up and drove me to the psychiatrist where I was prescribed medication that would halt the panic attack and allow my body to reset.

That was a year ago today, and the last year has been a time of tremendous growth in my life as well as a time of some significant pain. I have lived with the fear of having more panic attacks, which can be debilitating at times, but I am learning to cope. I have realized that I was essentially laid bare by the panic attack. It broke down every mechanism I had for handling life and brought me to my knees, and while this was not a particularly fun experience, it caused me to reevaluate my life and even how I viewed myself.

I found that at the core of my anxieties were childhood traumas, coupled with a tremendous fear of not being in control in public. What I mean by this is that I learned that one of the triggers of my panic was possibly showing weakness in front of others, which for years caused me to have to strive to be perfect. This perfectionism drove me mad and when I finally couldn’t handle it anymore I the panic attacks began.

Through working with my therapist and my psychiatrist, and through implementing some major changes in my life, I have, for the most part, gotten my panic attacks under control. There are times still where I can feel myself spiraling but I am now able to pull myself out of it, and I am glad to say that I have not had a full blown panic attack like the one I experienced a year ago.

This is not to say that the road ahead does not involve me continuing to put in work, because I know that I am not in the clear, but with that said, as long as I continue to do the work, and continue to try to live a life that is conducive to my own growth and happiness, I know that I will be more than fine in the long run. I know that these experiences will help shape me into the person I am supposed to become and that I will not, for the rest of my life, live under the fear of having a panic attack.

There is Hope!

Having a panic attack can be an incredibly terrifying experience. If you have ever experienced one, then you know what I mean. If you have just started experiencing them then you may be afraid to leave your house, or you may be afraid to participate in the things you love because you think that you could have a panic attack at any moment. You may feel all alone in your struggle and be unaware of where to turn, but what I hope to impress upon you is this—there is help out there for you. Understand that with the right emotional support, holistic therapies, meditation, and a healthy lifestyle you can overcome a panic disorder. You no longer have to be alone in your fight because help is just a phone call away.