In episode 6 of Small Town Big Stories we hear from Matthew Cowan, owner and Head Barista at Old Drum Coffeehouse and Bakery! Matthew shares what it is like to own a café and how his passion for serving others informs both his business and personal life.
Information and Resources About Panic Attacks:
In last week’s episode I mentioned that I would address the idea of panic attacks and how I have been able to eradicate them from my life. I have learned that the thoughts, emotions and physical sensations that precipitate panic attacks are invitations to panic, not inevitable warnings signaling the inevitability of a panic attack.
Let me say first that I am neither a doctor nor a psychologist (or psychiatrist) and any information I give to you now is based on my own experience, as well as information I have read in books or watched in videos on the topic of panic attacks. I mean for these notes to be a resource for you; not medical advice.
First, a short background on my experience with panic attacks. In the Fall of 2012 and into the Spring of 2013 I was teaching seven classes at two different colleges, working a part-time job at a retail store and I was doing a lot of on-camera commercial acting, as well as becoming known by the public for the role I was playing on camera. So, I was in front of people all the time: both at work and in my daily life. On an average day I woke up around 5:30am, started teaching by 9:00am, finished my teaching day around 3:30pm, drove to my part-time job and got home around 9:00 or 10:00pm. From 9:00am to 10:00pm I was interacting with colleagues at the university, over 100 students in my classrooms and rehearsal halls, people in grocery stores and gas stations that recognized me from TV, colleagues at the retail store and then customers at the retail store who both needed my attention to help them pick out clothes and who wanted to take photos with me because they recognized me from TV. In short, I was busy and constantly interacting with people.
During that same time, I was also beginning to experience what I would later learn were depersonalization and derealization. I was also having hourly heart palpitations and what seemed like irrational but very strong feelings of impending doom. Since none of these feelings or sensations seemed to make sense or be warranted by any stimuli in my immediate environment, I began to assume I was going crazy.
For example, I remember pulling in to the parking garage at the university at which I was teaching on a beautiful spring morning. I was listening to one of my favorite podcast episodes, the birds were chirping, the air was re-introducing my skin to warmth after a long, snowy, cold winter and I had all my students’ homework graded and my lessons prepared for the day. From the time I left home to the time I found a parking spot I had gone from feeling fine and “normal” to feeling like I was going to die. My mind was filled with thoughts like, “What if while I am teaching, I can’t find my words, I stop making sense to my students and then they ask me what is wrong but I can’t explain it so I start to speak gibberish, officially lose my mind in front of the class and the students don’t know what to do so they wait too long to call for help and I end up passing out, hit my head on the hard concrete floor, get a concussion and end up paralyzed and living in a hospital for the rest of my life?” And, based on those thoughts, my body began to react to the danger introduced into the scenario, which was introduced by my mind.
Long story short, my thoughts lead to an uncomfortable emotional response, my emotional response lead to uncomfortable physical sensations, those uncomfortable physical sensations lead me to the brink of a panic attack. My body began to react to that flood of symptoms as though I was in real and present danger. But . . . I wasn’t in any danger at all. The reality of the situation is that I was perfectly safe but my body and mind were reacting as though I had just seen a bear or someone was holding a gun to my head. That is what panic attacks do: they cause your body to physiologically react to fictitious stimuli the same way it would react to a bear charging toward you. So, by the time I walked into class, I was reacting to the bear but realizing that didn’t make sense so I was having to act like I felt perfectly fine.
As you might imagine, that was difficult. And the more the “what ifs” brought me to this place of fight, flight or freeze, the more I was experiencing depersonalization, derealization, heart palpitations, anxiety and depression. Eventually, that feeling of constantly being in the fight of my life, and the nearly constant rushes of adrenaline, began to make me wonder if continuing this fight to stay alive was even worth the trouble. I was wornout; I felt ashamed, guilty, inadequate, sick and lost.
Before I move on to what ultimately broke the cycle for me, I would like to explain two words I’ve used twice that may not be familiar to every listener but whose descriptions may shed light on confusing experiences for some listeners: depersonalization and derealization.
Depersonalization is a feeling of being detached from yourself. I will share an example of this in my own experience: I remember taking a walk in a park downtown one morning and looking around me at the rolling hills, the trees and the rose garden. I had the thought, logically, that my surroundings were pretty but I could not feel the emotion that “pretty” usually conjures within me. Instead, I felt like I was watching someone taking a walk and looking at pretty things. So, I could acknowledge the reality of the situation but I could not feel myself in it; thus I could not feel any of the emotions or pleasant sensations such a walk would ideally produce. Depersonalization also occurred when I was driving. I knew I was driving, I knew where I was going and I knew when I arrived I had tasks to complete and people to talk to. And my thoughts become rote—detached—it was as though I was a robot considering how this human with whom I was traveling was going to complete all her tasks.
Then there was derealization. Derealization produces feelings of unreality. So, if depersonalization feels like being detached from one’s self, derealization feels like being detached from reality. An example from my experience took place when I was sitting in church one Sunday. Logically, I knew I was in church, I could hear the sermon being taught, I could see my sister and my husband sitting on either side of me and I was aware of the specific time and place in which the service was taking place. But I also felt as though I was sitting above it all. As though I might leave the situation if I didn’t force myself to feel all the physical properties of the situation: the wood beneath me, the journal in my hands, and the way my sleeves rubbed against my skin.
As you might imagine from everything I just described, I felt isolated and I wasn’t sure how to make it back to the fullness of reality. For me, the journey back to health included research, counseling, group counseling and medication for about 8 months. The first step for me was learning what a panic attack is. When I learned what one is, I felt as though there was hope for me! I went from thinking I was going crazy to realizing that I wasn’t. Instead, I had gotten caught in something called “The Panic Cycle.” I learned this when I found a chapter from a book called “Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick,” by Dr. David Carbonell, Director of the Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago. (Here is his website: https://www.anxietycoach.com/anxiety-help-blog.html) Dr. Carbonell posted chapter 7 from this book online as a starting point for those of us who were suffering and I cannot thank this man enough for doing so!
Now, I am going to share some of the most helpful things I have learned about panic attacks, as well as a few of the most helpful resources I have found on the topic.
Helpful Things I Have Learned:
- Everything leading up to a panic attack is authoring an invitation for you to panic and you don’t have to accept the invitation. As proof of that fact, I have felt the invitation to panic many times in the past seven years but I have not had a panic attack since December of 2012. Just before that, I was having them nearly every day.
- Panic attacks are part of a cycle called “The Panic Cycle” and they all have a beginning, middle and end. No matter how often you think during a panic attack, “This one will never end”. . . you’re wrong. They do end. Every single one of them. That was a helpful piece of information for me right off the bat.
- Belly Breathingand The Rule of Oppositesare the most helpful techniques for me in staving off panic, as well as lessening good ol’ fashion anxiety:
- Carbonell describes Belly Breathinghere: https://www.anxietycoach.com/breathingexercise.html
- Carbonell begins to describe The Rule of Opposites on slide 23 of this Power Point presentation: https://adaa.org/sites/default/files/Carbonell_107.pdf
- Here is a link to Chapter 7, “The Panic Cycle”: https://www.anxietycoach.com/support-files/panicattacksworkbookchapter7.pdf
- This document is called “Ten Commandments to Remember During a Panic Attack”: http://www.libraries.gov.sk.ca/booksinfo/DailyHerald/DH1986/dh860517.html
- I have found the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy helpful during invitations to panic: https://www.letserasethestigma.com/emergency-action-for-panic-attacks
- You can find a link to purchase Dr. Carbonell’s book here (and no, he does not sponsor my podcast nor do I make any money if you purchase his book): https://www.anxietycoach.com/panic-attacks-help.html
I hope my story and these resources will be helpful to you if you are facing the scary situation of having panic attacks. I will leave you with this beautiful verse from Emily Dickinson’s poem, Hope is the Thing with Feathers:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –