Tag Archives: panic attack

what to do when old memories resurface

At night, thoughts just trickle down like raindrops into my brain. I really can’t control the onslaught, and I never know what form they’ll take from night to night. Last night, my thoughts turned to my year at Northwestern. It seems like an eternity ago, and I realized that I couldn’t remember a lot of peoples’ names. It was a relief, though, because most of them were people I didn’t actually know. They just knew the few people I did know, extending far out into the college life I never shared. I forget sometimes what a hard year it was. I’m honestly shocked that I made it through alive. At my worst, I had imagined crawling into the oven in the little kitchenette in the dorm room I shared with two other girls, and at my best, I successfully went to class, to the on-campus therapy, and check-ins with my hall director who needed to make sure I wasn’t going to kill myself. Even at my best, I was just surviving.

The thoughts of that year just kept streaming in last night, filling me up, like I was an inflating balloon. Chris snored peacefully beside me, and Yoshi had gone downstairs, so I couldn’t occupy myself with petting him. Instead, I went into Baxter’s room and lay on the sleeping bag I always kept in there for just such occasions. He wasn’t interested in playing with me, so I put him back in his house and lay on my back, listening to him rustle in his bedding and toilet paper tubes. With each breath, I tried to imagine thoughts leaving my body like air, as if I was decompressing from a deep dive. I wanted to become completely flat, even with the floor, and not swollen up with strange emotions.

Memories kept flying in, like the first week of living on campus where the college hosted an ’80’s costume party, and I sat watching three girls from my hall put their long hair in side ponytails, with off-shoulder sweaters and neon eyeliner, and the only ’80’s look I could possibly pull off was Joan Jett, because I owned a lot of black clothes and my hair was short like hers.

It’s so weird what comes up in the dark, with no distractions except the sound of a hedgehog drinking water. I kept picturing the little lounge area of my floor, Red Hall, even though I rarely spent time there. Then there was the “prank” some of the older girls played on the freshman when we first moved in, that there would be a table set up where any boys who came to visit would have to sign in. When they revealed that they were joking, it wasn’t really that funny, because we did still have to always keep the doors open if we had a gentleman caller, and they could only visit one day during the week. I truly can’t remember if it was part of the prank that we had to also hang little paper dolls on the door if there was a guy there, or if that was real. I knew that none of that would apply to me, prank or no, so it was a weird way to start the year.

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My corner of the NWC dorm. That big squared blanket is now primarily Chris’.

That was also the year that I got really into charismatic Christianity. After one especially intense devotional session with one of the girls sharing her story of being abused, I started getting worked up during the prayer session, and when someone tried to put their hands on me to pray, I flipped out. I ended up being held down on the floor, growling. When I finally calmed down, I was exhausted, but didn’t want to go back to my dorm to my roommate who never came to the hall Bible studies, and who did not understand either my depression or hyper-spirituality. She might have been in a cult. The other roommate, who was more receptive and open, was out with her friends. I don’t remember if I talked with my RA about what had triggered the spiritual attack (panic attack, as I now know it was), but I don’t remember feeling safe or reassured afterwards. When I think about that time and my relationship with the girls in the Hall, I’m left with a big question mark. It feels like I bled all over the floor all year and everyone kind of avoided it. Occasionally, someone would ask how I was, listen intently, and I would feel better.

During the year, I felt like I had some allies in my battle, so when I decided to transfer, I wanted to end the year well. I hung out one-on-one with the girl whose testimony had triggered my attack, and tried to connect with her using the only spiritual language I really knew: charismatic crazy talk. I thought she would understand, but by the end of our conversation, I could tell she thought I was insane. I never saw or talked to her again. The older girl who I had met with during the year was nowhere to be found when I moved out, and when I texted her during the summer about getting coffee, she was always busy. My RA unfriended me on Facebook until I refriended her, and she accepted. We never spoke of why she deleted me. Unless I’ve forgotten about that, too.

I’ve blogged about these experiences before, and I’m not bitter or mad about them. It was so long ago, and so much has changed since then, I kind of feel like telling myself, “What the hell, get over it.” And most of the time, I am over it. Last night was the first time I’ve really thought about any specific memories in a long time, and I’m not sure why they just appeared again. Maybe because I’m starting this small group and on the threshold of new relationships with Christians again, and some old fears are trying to get back in, like bloated ticks eager to feed on my blood again. Vivid image, I know, but that’s what it feels like. So I lay on the floor in the hedgehog’s room, breathing in and out, until I no longer felt like my chest was going to stretch apart and my brain was too tired to absorb the raindrops of thoughts. I checked on Baxter one more time, who jumped angrily when I touched him, and went back to the bedroom. Chris was no longer snoring.

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Adrenaline Rush

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In therapy, we’ve started to focus on anxiety. I’m much more concerned about that right now than I am about depression; depression is something I’ve learned to deal with and to a certain degree, can’t be “cured,” but anxiety is relatively new, and I believe that can be trained out of me.

I don’t remember my life without depression, but I remember it without anxiety, and I want that life back.

We talked about activities that I can practice, the ones that are on the lower end of my anxiety. Leaving the apartment to do laundry, going to the store alone, talking to clerks, and driving are all things I can practice pretty easily, and have made a lot of progress in. I went to my psychiatrist yesterday, and when I saw her last month, I wasn’t even able to go downstairs to the laundry room because of the anxiety. Since then, I’ve done laundry four times, gone to the store twice, and driven myself to every counseling appointment. The changes in medication has definitely played a part in that; when I sleep better and stay asleep for longer periods of time, the rest of the day automatically goes better and I’m able to concentrate my energy on achieving my goals.

There are certain activities that I can’t really “practice,” and those are on the highest end of my anxiety spectrum. Job interviews, saying something potentially embarrassing, and going back to school are all petrifying. When I think about school, it’s not school itself that I’m anxious about. I’m afraid of repeating what has happened before and what can only be described as a crash and burn. I’d start out the semester ok and then over time, get more and more anxious about things, miss more classes, and panic about everything. As I went through college, the periods of time where I could push past my fears got shorter and shorter until I collapsed on Chris’ floor just before midterms of my junior year and stopped going to school. I’m afraid that will happen again.

I’m afraid that when I walk through the school buildings, sit in class, and just navigate life as a Macalester student, the memory of my anxiety will be too vivid to ignore. Simply by being in a situation where in the past I’ve felt a lot of anxiety will be enough to send me spiraling. My brain will go into protection mode and a shot of adrenaline will disrupt the normality of finishing 20 credits.

What has basically happened to my brain is that my adrenaline is overly sensitive. While most people only experience that level of intensity when there’s an actual crisis (running from danger, gaining super strength when a car falls on a child, etc), I will begin feeling a sense of danger when I’m just doing everyday things, like asking for help in a store or meeting with an academic adviser. The physical symptoms of adrenaline kick in and I interpret that as meaning something is actually wrong, and my thinking follows. Why can’t I stop shaking? Why is my mouth so dry? If I talk, it sounds like I’m going to cry, and that will make me seem weak and weird. I can’t be around people right now, they’re making it worse. Now I can’t breathe. The fears going through my mind only make the adrenaline rush worse and that can cause anxiety attacks. The physical and mental panic build on each other until I can’t tell the difference between them.

Since my anxiety is so physically based (shaking, difficulty breathing, dizziness, feeling out of control of my body), the solution is also physical. What I basically have to do is calm my physical state before my mind can interpret the situation as one involving actual danger. In my head, I know that sitting in a class is not scary, but when my body is responding to the situation with shakiness and cold sweats, it’s hard to convince my mind that everything is peaches ‘n cream. When an adrenaline rush happens at an inappropriate time, I need to make some physical adjustments to ease the adrenaline back to a normal level. Deep breathing is key. When breathing gets out of control, everything just falls to pieces. Focusing on maintaining deep, even breaths calms down panicky feelings and concentrates the mind on something other than the non-existing peril. My therapist also suggested carrying water wherever I go, since getting a very dry mouth and not being able to swallow are very common symptoms for me. Drinking water helps so many things. The dizziness might even be caused by partial dehydration or low blood sugar, which I also tend to have, so having water and keeping a good blood sugar level are possible solutions. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

I may not be able to go practice going to school by actually going to school, but thinking about it is all it takes for a lot of my anxiety to kick in. I can use that to practice breathing and other techniques to calm myself down. Simulating anxiety-causing situations and then learning to control the feelings that arise is definitely a new goal on my list.