My heart started pounding 1000 beats per minute. My throat felt constricted. I had to gasp for air and remind myself to inhale… then exhale. I felt like I was going to pass out. I forgot how to speak and string together a coherent sentence.
What the fuck had just happened?
I was sitting in my apartment alone when all of this happened. The feeling of terror and helplessness jarred me. Although the symptoms I described went away after a few minutes, I was left scrambling for answers.
Did I have a brain tumor? Was this a precursor to a stroke? Was I going crazy?
That last point scared me the most. One of my biggest fears is losing my mind.
But, I had no idea what happened. WebMD wasn’t being helpful by telling me there were 20 possible causes for the symptoms I had felt.
I decided to shrug off what happened. After all, I didn’t know what else to do with something that had brought me, a grown-ass man, down to the floor. I hoped that the issue would just away if I avoided it. I wanted to write this incident off as a fluke in my mind.
The next few days and weeks were rough.
There were nights I would wake up gulping and gasping for air because it felt like I wasn’t getting enough air. With each inhalation, I still felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen coming in to keep myself alive. Having to tell consciously tell my mind to inhale and exhale because I was scared I’d stop breathing and die was terrifying. Having to confront my mortality and the idea of me dying made me feel weak and helpless.
There were times my heart would start beating faster, my head would start pounding, and I’d start to feel faint because it felt like the walls were closing in on me. I would struggle with speaking and stringing together a coherent thought. Trying to remember how to speak and even form together the sounds & enunciation of a word made me feel like I was losing it. This would happen at work when I was sitting at my desk. It would happen when I was sitting on my couch at home. The physical, bodily symptoms of a panic attack are bad. But, the way it affected my mind was especially jarring. After experiencing difficulty concentrating and losing my speech skills temporarily, I felt like I was going crazy. Was I becoming schizophrenic? Was my mind degenerating due to a brain tumor or some other sorts of trauma?
I was no longer in the driver seat of my life.
As men, we are taught…no, inculcated, at a young age that “boys don’t cry” and that showing weakness is the worst thing you can ever do as a man.
We’re taught to act strong and that expressing your feelings is “gay” and effeminate.
We’re taught to be competitive and always strive to beat the other guy.
We lift weights because we want to feel like we’re strong and the baddest man on the block.
We don’t open up in our relationships because we’re scared it’ll freak out the woman (or women) we’re seeing.
We’re scared we’re alone because other men don’t really talk about how they panicked when they were in a car or alone in their home.
And we feel alone and don’t talk about it because that’s “weak”.
This burden feels too damn heavy to bear at times.
That’s the thing about panic attacks… no matter how strong you are as a man (physically or mentally), a panic attack completely sweeps the rug out from under your feet and makes you fall on your knees not knowing what just hit you.
My breaking point for letting these panic attacks take ahold of me happened when my girlfriend was over at my apartment. We were watching Netflix on the couch, and I started to feel the onset of a panic attack. I tried desperately to push it away. Even though I could respond to what my girlfriend was saying, I felt my consciousness leaving my body. It felt like I wasn’t the one speaking to my girlfriend. My breathing became very labored, and I started to feel like I was going to pass out. I started to lose control of my body. The more I resisted, the worse the symptoms became.
I was hurting. I wanted the pain and fear to go away so badly. I didn’t want to do something that would freak my girlfriend out. I wanted to be strong and just get rid of what was happening to me.
But, I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Babe, I think I need to go to the urgent care…”
Those words took every ounce of my concentration and strength to utter to my girlfriend. They took concentration because my consciousness was fading. They took strength because I was scared of the consequences of my words and the perceived reality of my current situation.
I was scared I would pass out, stop breathing, and die alone in my apartment one day.
I was scared I would lose control over my motor / speech skills in front of everyone.
I was scared I would freak out in a public setting (i.e. work) and have everyone think I’m crazy.
I was scared my girlfriend wouldn’t take it well and would decide she didn’t want to be with me because I was “crazy”.
I was scared I was legitimately going going crazy and would have to be taken care of for the rest of my life.
I was scared I was going to die and this was the beginning of the end.
The idea of having a bright future ripped out from under me terrified me. The idea of having my friends and family watch me waste away in a mental asylum and think “what a pity” scared me at my very core.
That was a feeling I was intimately familiar with. It rules my day and nights.
Fear is what made the panic attacks such a monster in my mind. The sensations of a panic attack happening (i.e. fear of dying, faintness, difficulty breathing, loss of bodily control, heart palpitations, derealization, difficult concentrating / forming thoughts) were bad enough. But, what made it into an insurmountable monster was the nagging sensation in the back of mind that a full-blown attack would happen to me at any time without me having any say in it. I felt like I was the prey, and at the mercy of the predator that would spring upon me at any time. I was tiptoeing on eggshells praying they wouldn’t break and plunge into the black abyss of panic. I felt that being scared would make me more likely to develop a panic attack. So, I became fearful about fearing a panic attack. This only compounded my anxiety.
I started getting really anxious when I was in a public place because I didn’t want to lose my shit in front of other people. I started getting anxious when I was be in a closed space because I was scared I would suffer a panic attack and die without anyone being around me to save me. I was in a Catch-22 scenario: scared of suffering a panic attack with people, and scared of suffering a panic attack without people.
The term for this phenomenon is agoraphobia. Mayo Clinic defines agoraphobia:
Agoraphobia (ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uh) is a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.
Rewind back to the panic attack I was suffering in front of my girlfriend…
When I told my girlfriend I needed to go to the urgent care, she was very supportive and took everything in stride. Talking to her made me feel a lot better, and I was even tempted to not go to the urgent care because I felt so much better and wanted to save money. But, I went anyways just to be safe.
“Have you had any tea or caffeine recently”
“Is anything in your life really stressing you out”?
No, not really. I did just come back from a vacation in Europe after all.
“Are you taking any medication”
“Do you have any chronic health issues”.
“You’re exhibiting 7 out of the 10 symptoms of anxiety”.
When I heard that diagnosis, I instinctively thought my doctor was being lazy and just wanted to throw a diagnosis at me to get me out of the door. After all, he spent only a few minutes checking out my vitals and didn’t go through a battery of tests I had expected he would do.
How could these symptoms be due to anxiety? How could I be having panic attacks?
I was a fit 27 year old man who had just come back from a vacation in Europe, had a high-paying job, and was blessed with an amazing girlfriend. There was nothing in my life that was really stressing me out, and I had meditated for close to 2 years. I was basically Buddha (or so I thought).
After I left the doctor’s office, I voiced my dissatisfaction to my girlfriend. I felt I had been given a generic diagnosis of what was wrong with me (which I doubted) with no clear steps on what to do next.
I wasn’t healed.
I had another mild panic attack hit when I was driving down to San Diego with the girlfriend for a nice weekend getaway.
I had another mild one while driving to Big Bear with the girlfriend for another weekend getaway.
After having a string of panic attacks in a span of a few months, I finally understood I was indeed dealing with panic attacks. It took me long enough.
The psychological symptoms of panic attacks are the worst. I realized I lived in the past (i.e. holding fear and negative emotions towards past events) and also lived in the future (i.e. fear of having another panic attack). I was never truly present and living my life. My life wasn’t mine.
I vowed to figure out why I was going through these panic attacks and fix the shit out of it. I was tired of living in a personal hell.
In part 2 of the panic attack series, I’ll go over the reasons why I (and other people) may suffer from panic attacks.