I’ve had two major panic attacks over the last 13 years, though I am sure there have been some minor ones that I did not identify as a panic or anxiety attack at the time. I have had a few ER visits, one that I know now was a panic attack, but did not realize at the time.
When I’m in the throes of a panic attack, I feel different than when I am feeling anxiety. A panic attack makes me freeze, in the manner that I am not able to do anything but be in that horrible, frightened state. I’m sure you know the symptoms of a panic attack, which can vary:
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks end within 20 to 30 minutes, and they rarely last more than an hour.
A full-blown panic attack includes a combination of the following signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Heart palpitations or a racing heart
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Trembling or shaking
- Choking feeling
- Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Hot or cold flashes
- Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
The first panic attack I had was 13 years ago. I was alone at home and at the beginning stages of dealing with (at the time undiagnosed) chronic illnesses. One of them gave me symptoms that includes pain in my chest, pain in my back, pain in my jaw, and pain down my left arm. Does this sound familiar to you? A heart attack, you say? Yes, thank you, that was what I believed at the time. As I sat and thought about those pains as they persisted, I began to freak out. I started having trouble breathing, My heart was racing a million miles a minute…I could feel it pounding vigorously in my chest. I couldn’t catch my breath or think clearly. My fingers started to tingle and go numb…the edges of my vision started to go dark. I knew I was dying. I knew the world was going to end for me. I clutched the phone in my hand and called 9-1-1. Even as the dispatcher spoke to me, I was sure I was taking my last breaths. The woman on the phone told me that I needed to go to the door to let the paramedics in when they arrived, but I was on the second floor of my townhouse and I wasn’t sure I could make it. I was in a tank top and underwear, nearly naked, adrenaline and fear racing through my veins. I knew I couldn’t make it down the flight of stairs because I could barely breathe.
Then I saw out the window that the fire engine and ambulance were going past my townhouse, unable to find me. Still holding the phone, I gave a weak cry, saying out loud “they can’t find me!” The dispatcher on the phone tried to talk me into getting to the door again, and I knew if I didn’t, they would never find me, and I’d be dead. Alone. So I stumbled down the stairs, still on the phone, still half-naked, still unable to catch my breath. My heart pounded in my throat, nearly choking me, and I pretty much stumbled to the front door and threw it open. The fire engine was coming back up the street and I tried to wave at them, but the “HELP ME!” I tried to scream only came out as a warbly little mewl.
Somehow they found my house and came to help me. I remember the two paramedics being ultra-sweet to me, as they tried to help me. The female medic came in and immediately found me a blanket, which she wrapped around my naked legs. My vitals were “normal” but they saw that I was hyperventilating and they tried to help me calm down. To this day, I still use the technique they showed me. When I finally calmed down and could breathe again, my mother showed up with my grandmother, and the paramedics told her that I had hyperventilated. No one used the word “panic attack” but later I figured it out. The paramedics only told my mother that if I had hyperventilated enough, I would have passed out and my body would have automatically taken over my breathing and I would have been okay. It was the strangest thing to hear that passing out would have been the best thing to happen to me at that point.
After that incident, I went to a cardiologist to take a stress test (at 28), to make sure my heart was okay. The cardiologist did the test, but basically blew me off, saying I was too young to have a heart problem. At the same office, on the same day, a young man of 15 had an appointment and I heard him talking about the heart attack he’d had. I was baffled, and I knew anyone could have heart problems. I hated that the doctor had blown me off, so I was sure at the time that he had missed something. So my anxiety levels increased from there forward.
Oddly, I did not worry about having another panic attack (which is usually what a panic disorder is about)…probably because I did not identify that “episode” as a panic attack. But I did live with the high levels of anxiety. I was married by then, and there were days that I begged my husband to stay home from work with me because I was afraid to be alone. My levels of anxiety fluctuated for quite some time. When I found out that the pains that had started that attack was chronic gastritis, my anxiety lowered, because I knew where the pains came from.
There were some days when I had trouble reminding myself that it was not my heart, and to this day I still worry about my heart. To this day, I have to remind myself that the pain in my arm is likely from a gastritis attack (or gas pains, sadly!).