This past week, I’ve experienced a slew of medicinally induced panic attacks (PAs).
I’ve written a blog addressing my generalized anxiety disorder. I did not discuss my experience with panic attacks simply b/c the two are not mutually exclusive. Having anxiety disorder does not guarantee regular PAs. People who experience PAs do not necessarily have issues with anxiety. There are literally two criteria needed in order to have a PA: panic (thought) and hyperventilation (physical). I’ve known persons with differing disorders, to addicts, to garden variety life-stress types who have had a PA.
On June 25th, on a 1-10 scale, I had a 6.5 PA.
I am a non-trigger type. Every PA I’ve ever had was non-trigger specific. In the past my PAs were a result of anxiety build-up, concerns I was not addressing. So…it was much to my surprise when it out of no where, at age 36 and perfectly capable of addressing my problems before they get the better of me, I ripped into a PA without warning.
I examine it, I think on it, but I can’t understand why I had a PA. It had been years since my last one and just could not understand the origin of this one.
July 1st, I had a scale 9 PA. EMS had to be called out. It was the first time I had a PA in public too. I always had that reassurance in the past, in my college and teen years when my PAs were more common, that the attacks occurred in private. I was out that Saturday morning, having breakfast with my family at our favorite place, Kerbey Lane, and not long after placing our order, I went into full PA.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
- Racing thoughts of panic – increased by the fact that you know you’re panicking.
- Shortness of breath – this is more severe than it sounds. “Shortness of breath” sounds easy but it’s essentially what triggers hyperventilating as shallow breathing causes you to only take in carbon dioxide.
- Lightness of being – this is a feeling of disconnectedness. It’s as though you aren’t tethered or grounded. For me, it feels like an absence of mass, as though I’m not a solid person and I’ll fall if I stand up. This is due to the lack of oxygen.
- Tightening of the chest.
- Involuntary muscle spasms.
- Hot or cold sensations in the extremities.
Countering Panic Attacks
First, and this is priority, correct your breathing. You can counter and even lessen the severity of an oncoming PA just by correcting your breathing. REMEMBER – panic is the thought, but it’s shallow breathing that triggers hyperventilation. Hyperventilation causes nearly all the psychical symptoms of a PA.
- 5-3-7. That’s the trick. Inhale through your nose by the count of 5, then, hold that breath by the count of 3, and finally exhale through the mouth (through a pursed whistle shape) by the count of 7. The count will keep the panic thoughts in check (mental occupation) and this breathing rhythm will keep you appropriately oxygenated.
Stand up. It may seem contrary to the feeling, especially if you’ve been hyperventilating, but standing up and forcing yourself to concentrate on standing and staying upright is actually helpful.
- I was recommended to take it a step further and jog in place. Let me tell you, I do jog in place and it works. The extra movement forces a more correct breathing pattern – it’s all about the breath, I’m telling you.
Gripping. Get something in one or both hands and grip it. This helps counter the lightness feeling. A strong grip grounds you and brings you to the present.
- If it’s available, try gripping an ice cube. The discomfort a piece of ice causes is both grounding as it is mentally occupying.
Keep telling yourself the panic is in the mind, all else is a matter of breathing. You can get the physical manifestations under control if you can get your breathing under control.
It’s hard to believe that so much comes down to breath. But then, think about it, in an emergency, nearly the first question asked by anyone is, ‘are they breathing?’
Don’t you wish it was this simple:
Things to Keep in Mind
- THE WORST, and I mean THE WORST that can possibly happen to you, is you pass out from the lack of oxygen. Once you are unconscious, the body self-corrects for you. You will not die. You will wake up.
- The severity of the PA can be lessened, even completely countered.
- After the PA, you will be tired. Your fight/flight response was triggered and now your brain and body have been flooded with adrenaline. Your PA may last 5 minutes or half an hour, but you will feel as though you’ve run a marathon after the fact.
- Your brain goes jelly. It may be difficult to keep your thoughts in order immediately after the PA.
- If you experience PAs regularly, you should strongly consider taking up cardio. You learn to breathe better while managing stress at the same time.
But here’s the thing. After July 1st, my body was shaking regularly. My chest felt flighty, like I could go into a PA at any moment. For the next several days, I was a twitching, nervous wreck. I stopped driving, I stopped exercising. This wasn’t about a panic attack anymore.
Thankfully, I had my sister on the phone relaying all my non-regular reactions to these current PAs. She said, no Christina, get your meds checked.
Oh shit. My thyroid medication.
I had lost a lot of my hypothyroid weight and my prescription for treatment was very high. High for someone with a higher weight.
And the penny dropped.
I put in an emergency call to my thyroid manager and told her what was going on. She ordered a blood draw to be done the same day. With uncontrollable hands, I somehow managed to download the Uber app (recently back in business here in Austin, thankfully) and in less than 5 minutes, I and my 4-year old were loaded into the car and on our way the nearest blood pathology clinic.
The next morning, my provider told me I was experiencing “thyroid storm,” a lethal reaction to excess hormone in my system. My most recent weight loss had tipped me into the danger zone. I nearly fainted onto the sweat soaked examination bed. My hands and feet were shaking, I was drenched in sweat, and I could barely keep two thoughts together.
Thyroid storm is usually associated with people who have hyperthyroid. But it is possible to be medicinally induced via prescription meant to counter hypothyroid. No matter how it occurs, thyroid storm is very lethal. I narrowly avoided hospitalization or worse.
If there’s anyone out there who has hypothyroid disorder, assuming you are receiving a Rx that contains the T3 AND T4 hormone, and you begin to feel something like a PA as I’ve described, you need to see your thyroid manager.
Currently, I’m 3 days off my Rx and then I will resume a half dose regime…and I’m tired as hell. My body is exhausted. My brain has been repeatedly washed in panic and fear for nearly a week. But I’m here and a little more knowledgeable. You think you got your disorder in control and then come to find, there is still yet more to experience on the roller coaster you thought you knew so well.
“And there is only one thing we say to Death: ‘not today’.” Syrio Forel, Game of Thrones
PS – On a note of self-pity, I’ve been coffee free for 4 days to reduce the jitters until I’m better, and I gotta say, it sucks.