Panic attacks are, in many ways, like pests – mosquitioes, for example: you can hear the distinctive whining noise, but you cannot see them and you never know when, or where, they are going to bite…
I want to write about something which is both deeply personal and, I suspect, universal – and that is the close link between feeling powerless and the churning, intensely physical sensations of a panic attack.
First, let me examine the physiology of this symbiotic, if damaging, relationship – and, for this, I will venture into home territory and describe what it feels like. Briefly, sudden shocks or triggering of the amygdala’s fight or slight system can slow the digestive system down or stop it altogether. The muscles tighten ready for running away. Our bodies, that is to say, ready themselves for facing a woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger. It is as instinctive as that – and we cannot prevent the adrenaline surge.
The positive side of the above is that, should we actually need to, we can fight or flee. The negative, however, can very easily outweigh the positive – because the amygdala’s switch does not discriminate between incoming tiger and the powerless distress caused by contretemps with fellow human.
Digestion stopped suddenly results in, amongst other things, the painful griping of indigestion as fermentation takes hold. The muscular defence system causes intense, sudden and often frightening attacks of pain all over the body. The chemical attack upon the bloodstream gives rise to dizziness, sweating, ringing in the ears, lack of balance and an almost unbearable feeling of fear and imminent doom. Because some of these physical symptoms mimic those of heart attack, it is very easy to become convinced one’s abrupt end is just seconds away.
So, a situation has developed (which I won’t go into because it is private and not really germane to this post per se) that has left me feeling powerless, very stressed and upset – and, because this is how my anxiety works, has triggered the amygdala to do its gruesome worst.
Yesterday, I had just written what, for me, was a difficult and confronting post – one, in retrospect, I would have been wiser not writing because it pushed my stress and fear levels to a critical level – when, with no warning, the familiar and terrifying chest/gullet pain kicked in. I could not breathe without pain – and, no matter how often this happens, there is a sense of utter mind-blowing terror that no logic can dispel.
I tried to break the cycle by moving out into the garden and walking gently round it. I tried to calm my painful breathing down, to think calming thoughts, to distract my terrified mind.
To no avail. Sweating intensely. shaking all over, hyperventilating, I stood, frozen, at the garden’s end, convinced that I was about to collapse. I felt powerless to make it better (just as, with the above emotional situation, I cannot seem to get through).
Trembling, head whooshing, vision going in and out of focus, I walked back into the house, upstairs and lay down on my bed. My body began to jerk, of its own accord, and, dry-mouthed, I tried to draw the tattered remnants of mind control together to combat this attack by my own system.
Fortunately, I had earlier, in an unrelated move, switched on the colour-changing lights in my bedroom – and they proved invaluable. Focusing on them was soothing. Counting them, describing the colours and shapes gradually took my mind away from the worst of the pain and panic. Gradually the stiffness in my limbs began to ease, and the intense trembling slowed to an occasional twitch. Gradually my spasming gullet relaxed and the pain eased away. Gradually my eyes closed and trust that I would survive the afternoon returned.
But this has now happened four times since mid-June – and I sense, well, I know, that I need to look at what is causing this, which specific areas of powerlessness, fear and oppression are opening the bottle of nasty chemicals and flooding my body. This is an ongoing process because, having identified the problem, I then need to do something about it – and, when that comes to dealing with kinks in personal relationships, the confrontation and fear of it all can easily trigger a panic attack (and often does).
Broadly, the huge fear is the repercussions (anger, desertion) of setting clear boundaries for myself and of not allowing others to drain my energy. Assertion, in my still-fragile mind, has become twinned with desertion – and, for all that I know this is not true for every case, my body still reacts as if it were, if that makes sense.
Every single panic attack of the severity described above has come as a result of my trying to stand up for myself, or my facing inequality in a relationship and trying to do something about it; just saying, ‘No!’ can bring on profound anxiety and pain. Being around over-bearing people triggers the panic as often as not because I have yet to be confident in my ability to fend off their dominance, to refuse to ‘buy’ whatever it is they are ‘selling’.
I share this because it helps to analyse it in this much depth – takes away some of its overwhelming physical power over me – and also because I am absolutely sure that I am far from alone, and, therefore, my words might bring relief to another.
I wish I could end with a higher self reassurance or a neat quote of resolution – but I cannot, not this time.
What I will say is this, however: My feeling of powerlessness and inability to face, feel and resolve the emotional pain has been translated into the immediacy and petrifying anguish of physical symptoms: somatic nightmare.