Imagine your mind suddenly telling your body to react as if it’s being attacked. Your mind doesn’t tell your body what to be afraid of or what it needs to look out for. It just sends the message that you’re in genuinely grave danger – and then goes back to reminding you to breathe.
If you can’t imagine that, try imagining a life consisting largely of the first plunge off the top of a rollercoaster (with no warning that you were even riding one).
My first panic attack happened at the age of five while riding an old-fashioned, slow-moving carousel in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Suddenly, all I wanted was to get off this spiraling, seemingly eternal ride. My parents just thought they had a very weird child, since all the other five year-olds were begging their parents for another spin.
I wasn’t weird and I wasn’t crazy. But I didn’t know that then and neither did my parents. I was pretty sure I was both. Of course, that just added to my anxiety and I often had panic attacks just walking home from grammar school by myself.
The panic continued even as I grew older and, by the time I was 18, I had become an extraordinary actor. I had learned how to hide the rapid heartbeat, the sudden sweating, the trembling hands. I was such an extrovert no one knew about my panic attacks; they just thought I was being expressive and energetic.
And then one day, when I was in my 30’s, the attacks never stopped. They rolled over me, one after another, like crushing waves in the ocean, and only subsided when I fell asleep at night from complete exhaustion.
I tried therapy, hypnosis, yoga and all kinds of prescribed meds. Yet, in all that time and throughout all those efforts, I never met anyone who had this disorder. Or more accurately, I never met anyone who would admit they also lived with panic attacks.
Then, one Sunday evening, I was watching 60 Minutes on CBS. A large, imposing man – Dr. Arthur Hardy – was speaking about people who suffer from anxiety, agoraphobia and persistent panic attacks. I turned up the volume, screamed down the hall for my husband and began crying like a frightened child.
I had been validated. I not only had a real condition, but this man had a real way out. I called CBS the next morning to find out where Dr. Hardy practiced and was thrilled to discover he held his therapy group sessions in Menlo Park, California; a mere 50 miles from my home.
I went for an interview and testing with Dr. Hardy, and was told I could join the next therapy group starting in a week: Four hours on every Saturday for six months. Expensive? Definitely. Worth it? Every penny.
After three months of group behavioral therapy, I was far from seeing the light – but I could see the path to the beginning of the light and that was enough to keep me motivated. My incredible husband also attended every session with me and is the other hero in this story.
Dr. Hardy started his first session by telling us: “First, you need to know you will not die from a panic attack even though you feel like you are dying.” No doctor or therapist had ever uttered anything close to this one sentence. Then he added, “You also need to know you will get to the other side of this anxiety and you will thrive.”
He was right. I did thrive and I did learn how to handle the anxiety and panic until the attacks became further and further apart. The world finally started talking about Panic Disorder and other anxiety-related disorders more openly in the 1980’s and, since then, both psychologists and pharmaceutical companies have made great progress in developing treatment and medications that can help us.
If you or someone you love needs help (or just wants to do a little research), I encourage you to reach out to Anxiety Disorders of America at www.adaa.org. You’ll also find them in the Health & Wellness Resources of our site.
I also encourage you to call your primary physician immediately and make an appointment to share your symptoms. Most family doctors and internists are able to suggest both therapy and medication that can give you the quiet and calm you need to begin working on your anxiety.
So, when you see those wide, frightened eyes on the face of the man or woman riding with you in the elevator, please take a moment to connect, smile and nod. Let them know you’ve been there and there is a path to the other side.
Most importantly, please remember you are not alone.
Editor’s Note: In celebration of our first anniversary, 360Women is republishing a few of our favorite and/or most popular blogs from the past year; posts that you may have missed the first time around. This one was first published on October 12, 2015.