May 1, 2010

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 Of course, no matter how many times I looked behind me, there was no one there, but rational thinking is superseded by the rapidly growing fear.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.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear your troubles, Mikey! Nevcer had panic attacks myself, but they sound awful!!!

Anonymous said...

Do you get attacks before something stressful, like speaking in public?

historymike said...

Anonymous #1:

Yep - the worst part is that you pretty much know it is imagined BS but you cannot tell your nervous system that.

historymike said...

Anonymous #2:

Nope. They come completely out of the blue, and they seem unrelated to specific stressors. One minute I was enjoying a few carefree moments with my wife, and 15 minutes later I was in an adrenaline-induced terror.

liNda said...

The best book I've ever read on the subject . . . very practical.

Anonymommy said...

Have you suffered psychological trauma? That is what seems to cause mine.

historymike said...


Thanks for the bibliographical tip. I'll be sure to take a look at it.

historymike said...


Nah, I don't think the amount of trauma (psychological or physical) I have faced in life is especially significant, and in some ways I have been luckier than most people overe the course of my four-plus decades on the planet.

Two of the triggers for me seem to be when I am run down after a heavy workload/poor sleep, and also when I drink too much coffee. Yesterday I had three cups in six hours, which is much more than normal (I typically drink about one cup per day).

I can also sometimes tell when one of these attacks is coming on, especially if I have heart palpitations. However, yesterday I made an ill-considered choice to work alone in the house when I thought a panic might be coming emerging. The severity of my attacks is significantly lower when I am around people, as the presence of "anchors" helps keep irrational thought-racing to a minimum.

microdot said...

Stress and triggers...
I used to get panic attacks when I first started performing....
But Mike, when you are in a real situation that calls for you to confront your fear and perform or else...does the panic syndrome hinder you?
There are a few things I am really afraid of and they all have to do with confronting authority.
Basically, they are irrational fears.
I have a technique which sounds a little bizarre, but I suppose it is like meditation. I seem to be able to go somewhere else.
I am almost an observer of myself as I go through the motions automatically.
With this technique, I have over come my fear of heights, my fear of going through customs and controls.
Going to doctors....
I find that the more i confront my fears and deal with real stress ful situations, the better I am.
Bon Cnance!

Cat said...

Been there done this. I rarely have panic attacks any longer. I discovered the only way is through them. To just let go and trust in my safe return to sanity. I started having them at 26, and got to the point I couldn't leave my bed. Thanks to a much understanding and loving husband who supported growth, I managed to get up and get going again. I still suffered the panic attacks for close to 30 years. My crutch was to carry a book about panic attacks with me...when I felt it come on, I found a quiet place and read. The day I stood in a mall with a panic attack and let it just flow over and around me I knew I was soon to be over them.

Mad Jack said...

A very good friend of mine suffers panic attacks, which surprises me as he is the last person I'd think would suffer such. Adam (no, it's not his real name) started having the attacks due to the combined pressures of home and work involving situations that: A) He could not control or even influence, and B) the results of these situations would be harmful to him.

He managed to get over them by a combination of drugs and therapy. I think he took xanax.

I'm sorry to hear about your panic attacks, and if you like I'll ask Adam just what is was he did.

microdot said...

I was talking to my wife about what she thinks is a sciatic nerve problem and she related how a friends mother was cured by accupuncture.
Then she related how she went to the same accupuncturist to deal with anxiety her case, paralyzing stage fright.
She claims it worked in only a few sessions and she never had the problem again...I can testify to that!

historymike said...

Thanks for posting, MadJack. I am reluctant to go the pharmacological route, in large part because drugs like Xanax only work after the fact (unless a person wants to stay doped up all day, which I do not).

By the time the anti-anxiety medication hit my bloodstream, the worst of the panic attack would be over.

I am instead focusing on making sure I keep sleep a top priority (most of my events have been on days when I was running on 3-4 hours of sleep) plus integrating meditation and relaxation techniques into my daily routine.

historymike said...

Thanks for the tip, Microdot. I have never visited an accupuncturist, but I would not rule this out.

McCaskey said...

Curious, Mike, what your doctor thinks about these attacks (obviously without getting too much into personal detail).

Is there a possibility of an underlying depression issue, even a mild one?

I recall you mentioning sleep issues (insomnia) at various times over the years in your posts.

Panic attacks+insomnia would leave some medical people to ponder the depression possibility, I would think.

historymike said...


Yes, depression has been an on-again, off-again feature for most of my adult life. You are also correct that insomnia/sleep apnea/depression/anxiety can all be interlinked, and my physician is trying to determine the relationship between these and other health issues I am battling (diabetes, hypothyroidism, and so on).

McCaskey said...

Good luck with all that.

Sucks getting old; I share some of your 'issues.'

CarpCom said...

Mike, your Panic Attack story inspired me to share my own on my blog. Thanks for posting.

CarCom said...

Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Sorry to hear. I have two idea's for you;

1) Try understand the source of your panic and fear. Coffee, insomnia, fatigue etc are conditions/ers that make you simply more vulernable. They are a co-symptom, not a cause. All fear comes from ego-attachement (loosing job, relations, self-identity/status etc). This causes the fear, stress & fatigue. Study, meditate on it and try let go the attachment, try get to a state of non-attachement. This is a buddhist approach to your problem.

2) The heartmath approach. They have really practical techniques that you can use to bring the autonomic nervous system into balance whitin minutes. Eg. their attitude breathing technique uses breathing as an entry point into the unbalanced nervous system and helps bringing it into a more synchronized coherent state. It is a wonderful and very powerful technique. They have meaasurement tools to train the technique. I used them and they really help. I have anchered this technque and still enjoy it often when being stressed. Simply google on heartmath to find out more.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike, I to have panic attacks, the fear is so terrible. Any advice.PS can't handle this!