Caregiving and Anxiety, Part 1: When Panic Strikes
Panic can swiftly seize control over the afflicted. Even the mere fear of it will ignite the symptoms. It’s always hovering right below the surface. Talking about it, thinking about it, worrying about it – all have the power to manifest a panic attack. It took me two years before I could even write about it without the trepidation of another mental assault.
I suffered my first panic attack in May, 2014. It could not have happened on a more benign and unexpected day. I was enjoying lunch at a local deli with two of my close girlfriends and my precious three-month old baby boy, Ben. He was sleeping soundly in my arms as the three of us chatted and caught up on our latest life events. Motherhood the third time around, for me, was like a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. It felt cozy and comfortable and fulfilling. I loved it. I would tell people that I had post-partum elation – that’s how much joy this little man brought to me. I could easily spend hours nursing him and cuddling him, not at all worried about my neglected to-do list. He was not necessarily an easy baby, but he was a very happy one, and I truly savored every minute I spent with him.
On this particular day, I felt ecstatic about being out of the house and among other people. Up until then, around-the-clock nursing had me sleep-deprived and not really in the mood to socialize. So, there we were, finishing our salads while Ben fell into a sweet milk coma. He was completely limp in my arms. As we were talking, I noticed a familiar tingling in my left arm. I had been experiencing that sensation on and off since Ben was born, and I attributed it to lying on mostly my left side when I nursed him at night. But, at this moment, the tingling suddenly shot up through my arm and straight into my chest. I felt my blood quickly drain to my toes, like that rush that comes when something bad is about to happen. My chest began squeezing. Hard. I jumped up quickly and cried out to my friends that something was very wrong. My heart was pounding so loudly that it muffled any other sounds coming from the restaurant. My hands and feet went numb and I felt really hot, like I was going to pass out, so I handed the baby over to one of my friends and told the other to call an ambulance. I was certain I was having either a heart attack or a stroke.
By the time the ambulance got there, my arms and legs had gone completely numb. The pain in my chest was intense, and my throat felt like it was closing up. I was pulling for air, but I could not catch a breath. I also had serious tunnel-vision. They took my vitals in the ambulance, and I pleaded for oxygen. At this point, I prayed that, if I were dying, I would just pass out first and not feel anything. Then, the medic informed me that my O2 levels were at 95%. In other words, they were pretty perfect. And, my blood pressure was also normal.
I am dying, I thought. They are missing something, for sure. I begged them to take me to the emergency room. They reluctantly agreed. I had my friend call my husband, and I left my baby in her arms, grateful that, at the very least, I knew he was safe.
I was still numb and hyperventilating when we arrived at the hospital. I had a two-ton elephant straddling my chest. My mouth and nose felt like they were wrapped in cellophane. The sensation that I was suffocating was the most terrifying aspect of the entire episode. I wanted to become unconscious just to escape the discomfort. Finally, mere minutes after they administered an injection, my breathing slowed down, my body relaxed, and some feeling came back to my toes. The injection was Ativan, a medication for anxiety.
I was profoundly shocked that what I had just experienced was a panic attack. In fact, I didn’t believe it. At age 37, I had no prior history of anxiety and had always felt like I had been coping quite well, given my circumstances. Needless to say, the doctor’s words were, “If you are in the ER for a panic attack, then you are not coping as well as you think.”
They sent me home with a script for alprazolam. Like aftershocks from an earthquake, panic has a ripple effect that sets off subsequent attacks. For months to follow, I suffered regular bouts of panic, to a debilitating extent. The fear of having another attack, especially in public, made regular trips to the grocery store and other errands I once embarked on without a second thought nearly impossible unless someone else accompanied me. I was even petrified to stay home alone with my baby because, during an attack, I still thought I was dying and I didn’t want him to be left unsafe. Often, I would call my husband to come home from work or ask my mom to drive down and spend the day with me because I was so terrified. I even saw both my primary and a cardiologist for a full work up to be reassured that nothing was medically wrong with me.
Prescription medications of any kind have never agreed with me, so I was hesitant to take anything besides an occasional alprazolam in an emergency situation. I tend to fall into the 1% category that experiences every single possible side effect. So, I looked for other ways to prevent the symptoms. I learned calming techniques like self-talk and breathing exercises. I also cut out caffeine completely and began taking various supplements such as Gaba Calm, Kava tea, and adaptogens. Of course, a few alcoholic beverages never failed to take off the edge, but any more than that had the opposite effect.
As the time between attacks began to space out, I became more willing to push myself in public environments. Even if my fight or flight triggers were going off like crazy, I would force myself to stay where I was and work through it, proving to myself that I was not in danger, and that I was able to accomplish my daily tasks without support. The more successes I could get under my belt, the more confident I would feel, on ensuing days, to leave the house. If symptoms would start to surface, I would repeat to myself, “You are safe. You are not in danger.” I would breathe deeply. These strategies have worked well. However, the anxiety and panic have not disappeared completely. If I am under a lot of stress or feeling very sad, they tend to creep back up on me.
Panic for me used to be like Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. The fear of it was just as bad as the actual confrontation with it. But, the best way to defeat your enemies is to get to know them. Fear hates to be defined and easily described. It despises the light of day. Fear prefers to lurk in the dark as an ambiguous and unspoken sense of doom. So, I’ve discovered that the more I let myself talk about it and call it what it is, the less it intimidates me. I reclaim my power when I name it.
I have days that, from beginning to end, are a full-on battle. Panic and Depression are intimate companions who rarely ever spend time apart. If they had personalities, they would be manipulative, deceitful, and jealous. They want to dictate how I spend my day by interrupting my plans and keeping me holed up in my house. They want my thoughts to be only about them or on whatever fuels their power. They want to keep me small. Panic wants to keep me afraid of everything. Depression wants me to feel like there’s no point to any of it. And, together, they work hard on draining every ounce of energy I have so that I lose the will to fight. These two often bring their buddy, Guilt, who never forgets to recite her list of all the reasons why I am a horrible mother, spouse, daughter and friend, especially on the days when Panic and Depression are winning.
They are quite the nightmare trio.
Here’s the thing; they have met their match. My life is far too precious to me to let any of these emotional terrorists hold the reigns. They might win some days, but every time I accomplish something in spite of their presence, I consider it a victory. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may have to battle them for the rest of my life. But, I refuse to let them completely take over and prevent me from living wholeheartedly.
Understanding why the panic started in the first place, especially so late in my life, with no prior history of anxiety, has been crucial to my fight. I’ve discovered that my role as a caregiver and the long term effects on my nervous system due to chronic anxiety is a complicated topic so I will cover it in detail on a future post and include a variety of helpful strategies and tools for coping with panic and anxiety.