I had my first panic attack during my senior year of high school, in the middle of anatomy class. We were prepping for a lab where we’d prick our finger, draw a bit of blood, and determine our blood type. I had been looking forward to this lab – I loved this kind of thing. Right before we were supposed to break off into our lab groups, my heart jumped into my throat. I felt heat over my entire body, and suddenly the room was spinning. I carefully stood and walked to my teacher, hoping I wouldn’t collapse en route. When I asked her if I could go to the nurse, she took it was a teachable moment.
“Don’t forget everyone, it’s OK if you’re afraid of blood! You can sit this experiment out!!”
I was frustrated. I had no issues with blood, and even watched surgeries on television for fun. I wanted to correct her (“I’m not scared of blood, I’m having a heart attack!”) but figured it was more important to get to the nurse, and fast. It wasn’t until about an hour later, sitting down with the school nurse and my mom, that I realized it was a panic attack. The death of my father a few months prior and my impending departure to college in another state had caught up to me, and my body decided to revolt.
I have had panic attacks ever since. I’ve walked out on dinners with family and friends, fled lecture halls, canceled dozens of plans, and gotten off crowded trains and buses miles from my destination because of panic attacks. Panic led me to self-medicate with alcohol, only to wind up in rehab at 24 years old. I’ve been on five different medications at different times in hopes to control it. I’ve run miles upon miles, meditated, and even tried hypnosis to calm the internal chaos. While these lifestyle changes helped in different ways, it was a single appointment with a psychologist in Chicago – Dr. Sam Hamburg – that ended up helping me more than anything else.
Understanding My Panic Attacks
When it comes to my panic attacks, ignorance has never been bliss. To eliminate them, I wanted to know everything I could about them. Dr. Hamburg attributes his approach to panic attacks to a chapter written by Alan J. Goldstein in the book Agoraphobia: Multiple Perspectives on Theory and Treatment.
“We all go through life at some level of anxiety. The thing about panic attacks is that they’re kind of like mountain peaks. Mountain peaks don’t rise from deep river valleys – generally you get to Denver and you’re at 5,000 feet, and then the mountains begin. It’s likewise with panic attacks. Generally they happen when the person’s overall level of anxiety is elevated,” Dr. Hamburg says.
This, of course, makes perfect sense. I am most susceptible to panic attacks when I have a lot going on, I’m exhausted, and I’m already on pins and needles. While understanding and treating panic attacks were my main concern, it’s important to lower your overall anxiety as well.
If you’re anything like me and prone to consider worst-case scenarios, Dr. Hamburg has a big light at the end of the tunnel for you that will hopefully comfort you like it comforted me.
“The important thing for any person who has panic attacks to realize before they try to deal with attacks in this way is that, if you have a panic attack, you’ll never lose consciousness, fall down, get a heart attack, or die in a panic attack,” Dr. Hamburg assures. The catastrophe that you’re fearing will not happen.
But what makes me start spiraling into panic? Why does it feel like one second I am sitting at my desk, having a perfectly ordinary day, and the next second I am gripped with terror? Well, says Dr. Hamburg, there are “early warning signs” that trigger panic attacks – and these can be almost anything.
“It could be their heart racing, it could be dizziness, it could be starting to sweat, it could be a tingling sensation, it could be a tightness around their chest, it could be difficulty breathing, it could be a funny feeling in their head,” Dr. Hamburg explains. ‘They start to feel it in their body and say to themselves, ‘Uh oh.’”
It’s that dreaded moment when you know a panic attack is coming. For me, during that fateful anatomy class, it was a quickened heart rate and dizziness. My body was doing something strange and I didn’t know why – and to this day, those early warning signs stop me in my tracks.
Controlling the Panic (Or Trying To)
I had an entire arsenal of tools to use when I noticed those first early warning signs of a panic attack. I would breathe deeply, sip a water bottle, or wrap my arms around my body to feel secure. I’d tell myself, “Caroline, you’re okay. It’s just a panic attack. Calm down.” Turns out, Dr. Hamburg has a name for these, too: efforts to control.
“There’s a period, and this could last from a few seconds to a few minutes, when you’re trying to control what’s happening in your body and make it calm down. Any rational person reacts to these early warning signs this way – to try to make them calm down and go away,” says Dr. Hamburg.
Spoiler alert: my efforts to control were never effective. Inevitably, after a few minutes of trying to find my zen, I would realize that I simply couldn’t calm down. It is this moment, after realizing that I’m not in the driver’s seat and my panic is out of my control, that a full-fledged panic attack would begin. After all, no one wants to feel out of control of their own body.
Previously, this is where I’d make a mad dash for the door. If I couldn’t control my panic, I needed to get somewhere I could be alone. As you can imagine, fleeing the scene is not always possible – like during exams or while working a 9-to-5. Plus, when I could flee, I just conditioned myself into thinking some situations and locations were panic attacks waiting to happen. It’s lose-lose.
Here’s where this life-changing wisdom came into play.
Embracing the Irrational
As you can tell by now, the panic attacks took off when my efforts to control my warning signs failed. But why do they always fail, exactly?
“You’re trying to control bodily responses that are, in fact, controlled by what physiologists call your autonomic nervous system… when you’re trying to control these bodily responses what you’re actually doing is setting yourself up to feel out of control. You’re trying to control responses that you didn’t have any control over in the first place,” Dr. Hamburg explains.
That makes sense. By trying to control something uncontrollable, I was just setting myself up to spiral into panic. But what is the alternative?
The alternative is to stop fighting your body, and the early warning signs you’re feeling.
“What you do is you stop whatever you’re doing and you pay close attention to what’s happening in your body, and then whatever’s happening in your body, you try to make it worse,” Dr. Hamburg instructs.
Sounds insane, right? I certainly thought so the first time I heard his advice. Why on Earth would I want to make myself feel WORSE? When the only thing I want is to calm down and feel normal, trying to rev my body up even more sounds like a nightmare. But here’s the thing… I can’t make my panic worse, and neither can you.
“Just as you can’t make it better, you can’t make it worse. You can’t do anything about it. But if you try to make it worse, if you’re not fighting the direction that your body’s going in, you’re not setting yourself up to feel out of control,” Dr. Hamburg elaborates.
By going along with your panic, by ditching your attempts to calm down, your mind and body are on the same team. You preserve your sense of control, and you embrace the early warning signs that previously signaled doom and gloom. Your heart rate quickens, your hands get clammy, and your face feels hot. So what? Stop fighting it, and see what happens.
When I embrace these stubborn panic symptoms, I don’t spiral into a full-fledged panic attack. I avoid an attack altogether because I never feel out of control. After using this method, time and time again, I’ve learned to trust my body to carry me through my panic as long as I stop fighting it.
“The panic attack, the anxiety level, goes down because there you are standing there, minute after minute, and you haven’t fallen down, you haven’t had a heart attack, you haven’t lost consciousness, and you haven’t died. Hey, wait a minute, that’s what you were afraid was going to happen and it’s not happening. It’s an all-clear signal; you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Dr. Hamburg concludes.
That’s it. After years and years of dealing with both panic attacks and the constant dread of panic attacks, this simple way of perceiving it differently was what ended up making all the difference. Now, whenever I meet another person struggling with panic attacks, I excitedly pass on this explanation – this gift – I received from Dr. Hamburg.
It must be noted that this remedy, like any other mental or physical treatment, will not help everyone. For many people who struggle with panic attacks, medication, psychotherapy, and other treatments are not only helpful, but absolutely necessary. If you’re struggling with debilitating panic, anxiety, and/or depression, I urge you to see a doctor and explore other methods of treatment. This way of thinking is incredibly helpful for me, but I also utilize exercise, sobriety, and a low-dose of medication to manage my anxiety. You deserve to find the personalized course of treatment that is right for you.
Panic attacks controlled my life for too long. By changing the way I view them and thus changing the way I react to them, I got back a freedom and peace of mind that, for many years, I thought was gone for good.