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What my panic attacks feel like.

Chronic Anxiety is a mental illness that can bring with it painful, physical manifestations. In fact, when Anxiety turns into a full-blown panic attack, the suffering It inflicts on your body often feels unbearable.

The felt aspects of these attacks are numerous may differ from individual to individual. All the same, I thought it might be helpful to post various ways I physically experience them so that they can provide a window into how others with this mood disorder may feel.

The following are revised excerpts from my blog Prone to Hope (pronetohope):

I hate it when a panic attack freezes up my mind. It’s like my brain goes from being a functioning (happy) organ to a brick of cement —  immobilized, frozen in hyper-defense mode, preparing for the world to attack me.

Sometimes the transition from normal-brain to brick-brain is instantaneous. Sometimes it’s more gradual, which is even scarier. Imagine slowly sensing your brain harden from front to back and down to the base of your neck. As it begins, I know what’s happening, and doom readies me for what’s coming.

Then my throat clenches up. It’s physically hard to talk. It feels like I am crying, but the tears are pouring fire out of the backs of my eyes.

Then all the nerves from my shoulders up seem frayed at their ends.

It is a terrifying and sad place to be.

I’m having a panic attack. It started about 20 minutes ago with shortness of breath accompanied by the sensation that only the tops of my lungs were functioning. And then I felt my brain hardening, not quite brick-like, but more like a soft cement. And then, just a few minutes ago, my arms tightened, and my wrists’ nerve endings started exuding pain. Now, I can feel my heart racing.

Tonight a feeling returned:  the sense of Anxiety capturing my breath and turning it into pain. It rose from my lungs and took over my throat. If I had tried to talk, it would have been nearly impossible.

Throat constricted, my brain switched from normal to negative within the tick of a clock. Fear washed over me.

Why? This type of acute attack of Anxiety hasn’t hit me for well over six months. It’s out of nowhere. The timing of the onset seems so random. And that randomness accentuates the fear. When will it strike again?

I feel incapable, embarrassed, less-than, damaged.

Scariest is when Anxiety turns the oxygen I breathe in into an incredibly heavy gas. Imagine inhaling something so heavy that each of your lungs feels like they weigh a ton and lose any elasticity. Anxiety has decided to show me what a spiritual possession — if I believed in that — might be like, and It had taken residence in my chest.

Sometimes extreme panic attacks hit me in the morning just as I am getting ready to leave for work. In addition to physical/emotional experience, I often get drenched in sweat. I mean that. I go from slightly agitated to completely freaked out. My shirt clings to my upper body because of how wet it is. The upper part of the back of my pants and the full waistband become damp. I must change shirts. It’s a judgment call on the pants. Brick-brain and frayed nerves accompanied by clothing that clings to my body feel disgusting and terrifying. I hate myself.

The physical pain manifests in many ways; the following are three of them. The most common sensation I have is the impression that a tightening, constrictive band is crushing my chest; it labors my breathing. The next level of pain feels like someone is choking me or my throat is collapsing upon itself. At its worst, the panic attack heaps on additional pain to one or both of the sensations above. Sometimes I feel as if every nerve in my body has frayed ends and is burning.

My chest is tight, with my sternum weighed down as if a heavy dumbbell is attached to it. My breathing is irregular. The fascia of my neck and scalp feel taut and twisted. My brain feels like it’s crushing into itself.

Emotionally, I’m feeling inadequate — like a fraud. Intellectually, I’m questioning my every action and interaction.

My head started spinning. I blurted out some unhelpful sentences. I then wrapped myself into a protective shell as I felt the world spinning around me. I saw the conversation I had been a part of was continuing without me. I imagined — perhaps accurately — that the others knew not to say anything to me.

Sometimes I heard the words of the conversation outside my cocoon. If those words overwhelmed me, I just continued looking straight forward or at my feet, trying to maintain an inward — not outward — panic. Sometimes I would hear the words of the conversation outside my cocoon and agree with them. I tried to appear still a part of things. So I’d nod my head.

Conversation done. Walk to my car. Turn on the vehicle. Stay warm. Cry.

I had a bit of time before I had to engage with the rest of the world again. I got to calm my mind and leave the panic behind. I texted my wife. That helped incredibly.

Later on, I engaged with the world minimally.

Once I got home, I collapsed and silently cried myself to sleep.

Thankfully, it’s been some time since I’ve experienced a panic attack. My hope is for others who live with chronic Anxiety not to have to suffer through them too much as well.

Being a cheerleader for myself.

Most people who know me know that I was a cheerleader in high school. I loved it. Our squad did tons of stunts I would have never thought possible to be part of until we trained every day to get the flips and throws and other acrobatics to performance level. Another thing I really liked about cheerleading was revving up our fans to get or keep a good thing going or amp up the team spirit to get things going.

These days, many of my friends and colleagues know that I still consider myself a cheerleader. While I can no longer do the stunts, I love cheering other people on when they’ve accomplished something. And most of my colleagues know that I cheer for accomplishments big and small.

I am a cheerleader for others.

I am not so much a cheerleader for myself.

While not getting to the details too much, I don’t like significant parts of who I am. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say I bet many others who suffer from mental illnesses feel the same way. That is unless therapy (and likely meds) have brought you to a place of sustained peace with who you are, and you can practice self-compassion most of the time.

One of the reasons I’ve gone back to therapy is because deep down I know that while I hate the Anxiety that is still with me and how it bleeds into many thoughts about myself, I have a lot to cheer about Michael. I’ve got a lot of work to do. My therapist sent me a link to an online tool to measure my level of self-compassion. Let’s just say the scores pretty much suck.

The good thing is therapy is helping a lot. Instead of calling myself stupid for the errors and stumbles I make (which only leads to or increases my Anxiety), I’m starting to say, “Well, that wasn’t the smartest thing, Michael,” or “How can I keep such-and-such from happening again?” In other words, I’m catching myself when I stumble, and rather than internally identifying with the negative action or poor thoughts about myself, I am flagging the instance of negative actions or poor thoughts as what was not optimal. Put differently, I am starting to catch myself, making the criticism less about my identity and more about a specific action. This is a tectonic — and extremely positive — shift.

Doing this, I am told and have read, is a skill. Just as I trained to do stunts as a cheerleader in high school, I need to train myself in self-compassion. I need to practice catching myself when I make mistakes and note that that’s just part of being human.

Oh, and another thing I need to start doing is being a cheerleader for myself.

I imagine I am not alone in these struggles.

Have Compassion for Someone Who Has Just Gone to Therapy

This may seem pretty basic, but I think it deserves noting: mental health therapy is hard. It’s hard in the best possible of ways. The person who is going is trying to heal their wounded mind.  And, just as healing comes with its discomforts and trials on a physical front, such is the case from a mental health perspective.

Now, just as I note with nearly every post dealing with mental health, realize that:

• I am a fan of mental health medications being used for chronic illnesses paired with talk therapy as needed. 

• I am just one person with one perspective on the issues of Anxiety and Depression. What’s right for me might not be right for some. 

• That’s why I advise anyone who is going through mental health difficulties to seek professional help. I am not a professional.

Okay, so that being said, let me tell you how talk therapy helps and impacts me. Talk therapy helps me navigate real-world situations more healthily. It shows me how the way I think about some situations might not be healthy. In fact, my approach may make my mental health situation worse. Case in point, before therapy, I’d try to fight Anxiety when It reared Its ugly head. Now, I know to either let Anxiety do what it’s going to do, but my lack of interaction with It to bore it. Yeah, I know there’s a bit of imagery there. A former therapist of mine told me to see Anxiety as not part of me, but instead a (fictional) character of sorts, standing next to me, trying to engage me in a fight over who was going to take control of my mind. My therapist said that Anxiety loves a fight. So it’s best not to engage. It gets tired of trying to rile me up.

That content seems simple enough. I get it. But my brain, when I was being counseled to react differently, was swimming in a bit of confusion and doubt as well as a lot of curiosity. It mentally and physically wore me out. My brain couldn’t absorb more; my muscles all felt exhausted. Why? Because for probably 35+ years, that’s not how I handled Anxiety. Mentally, I kicked, punched, and wailed (inside). Anxiety loved going toe-to-toe with me, and It did so often.

Let that sink in.  Over thirty-five years of my brain thinking a certain way, having synapses wired to get me to act differently. And in one 50-minute session, my (great) therapist was instructing me that:

• my prior approach was all wrong,

• there was a better way to handle things (which she described pretty effectively and efficiently), and

• I had some homework to do between our visits.

When the visit was over, I walked to my car and just broke out bawling. A few minutes later, I was on the phone with my wife, Rebecca (whose counsel I cherish). I gave her the session blow-by-blow (pun intended). First words out of her mouth: “I love your therapist.” Rebecca said a little bit more, but she knew her primary job in that situation was just to listen, let me process, and act compassionately as I cried at her.

Here’s the kicker, I was shot for the day, good for nothing other than to continue processing. For example, how was I going to not hit back when Anxiety pummeled me? Rebecca let me listen to music and head to bed early that night. That was the best I was going to do for myself and anyone else, for that matter.

Now, that lesson, by comparison, was an easier one. I’ve dredged up my past more times than I’d prefer to admit, gotten advice on what to do in social situations where Anxiety thrives, and been told things that run counter to my thinking as a social justice advocate.  (I struggle with those sessions pretty poorly, but that’s for another day.)

So what’s the takeaway if you know or love someone who has just been to a therapy session? First, know that they may likely have been challenged to think differently than they have for years, which is incredibly difficult and takes a lot of practice. Second, while not always the case, they may be struggling for several hours as they process what they’ve just been told. And third, depending on how that person processes information, they may need to spew out what they’ve just learned to someone whose best role is likely just to listen and affirm and give hugs.

Catastrophizing, Anxiety, and panic attacks

In getting myself ready to start writing for my blog, Prone to Hope, again, I decided to sample about twenty of my previous entries (some published, some still in draft form).  I observed that many of the entries mention negative self-talk, putting myself down as an idiot or a stupid failure.

For example, let’s say I forget that I made a commitment to a colleague. When my forgetfulness comes to light — to me, my colleague, and the group we’re a part of — I fear I will have irreversibly damaged my relationships with everyone present, especially the colleague I made the commitment to.

Or I damaged some starter plants for my garden. My internal voice says I’m stupid and a gardening failure. I fear I will ruin everything I’ll be planting that season.

Or I get nervous during a public presentation I am making. Time slows down, and I feel as if I am slurring my words. My mouth dries out.  I can hardly talk. I start sweating profusely. I fear my failure at presenting will bleed into the information I am trying to convey. I tell myself that those present won’t trust what I’m trying to get across.

These thoughts are called Catastrophizing. We all do it once in a while. They are irrational thoughts when your brain blows a mistake or flawed incident out of proportion.

For those with Anxiety disorders, catastrophizing can happen a lot. It happens to me a lot. And, if I’ve gone beyond the “simple” Anxiety, I may experience a panic attack. On top of the mental anguish I experience, the attack can put me in intense physical pain, force me to question my intellectual abilities, and make me feel alone.  Incredibly alone.

The physical pain manifests itself in three ways. The most common feeling is that I have the impression that a tightening, constrictive band is crushing my chest; it labors my breathing. The next level of pain feels like someone is choking me or my throat is collapsing upon itself. At its worse, the panic attack heaps on additional pain to one or both of the sensations above. Sometimes I feel as if every nerve in my body has frayed ends and is burning.

These are not happy, hopeful experiences. Isn’t the blog called Prone to Hope? Sure. You can read why on the “about Prone to Hope” page. The title of the blog has a double meaning. That’s very intentional.

Anyhow, back to the Catastrophizing and (sometimes resulting) panic attacks. There are several ways to handle the situation, many dependent on the stage at which you are experiencing Anxiety. As I noted in the previous entry, a podcast I’ve started listening to advised listeners to ask themselves, “How detrimental will the current issue you’re feeling Anxiety about be in six months?” Answer: “You probably won’t even remember it.” Similarly, sometimes you can try to control your breathing, deepen it and slow it down, and then ask yourself, “Why am I worrying?” Naming the issue for what it is, rather than the catastrophe you’re sure will follow, can sometimes force your brain to halt the irrational thinking and the bodily sensations that sometimes accompany it.

(By the way, there are plenty of other tactics you can employ to help you through this level of symptoms.)

Now, if you’re already in full Anxiety mode, a prior therapist of mine told me to imagine Anxiety as a being unto itself (ah, now you see why I capitalize the “A” in “Anxiety”), acknowledge It, and then let It do what It’s going to do. Even if that means you’ll experience some of the symptoms I describe above, it’s essential to not get into a tussle with Anxiety. It loves a fight and will make the situation worse.

Lastly, if you’re in full panic attack mode, I think it’s best to ask for help, remove yourself from a situation, and/or call it a sick day and head home. Chances are, throughout the day you’re going to feel unfocused, very tired, and possibly embarrassed (although you shouldn’t be, it’s an illness, after all).

Now, to end with hope. I am on medications to address my chronic Anxiety and Depression. They help a lot. I’m not experiencing Depression (and haven’t for years), and my Anxiety is at a much lower level than before I got to my current cocktail of meds. If I’m going through a rough patch (which I, unfortunately, am now), I seek the help of my therapist. Through talk therapy, I usually learn several tactics to help address the situation I am currently in.

I look forward to getting my mind to a different — healthier — place soon.

(If you find these posts helpful, I have nearly 150 others on Prone to Hope (www.pronetohope.com) right now.)

Reviving Prone to Hope & ways to deal with negative self-chatter.

The following post is stolen word-for-word from a Facebook post I wrote this morning. Read no further if you’ve seen that. But please leave a comment if you like.


I’m thinking about reviving my blog, “Prone to Hope.” I’ve been engaged in a lot of Anxiety-induced, negative self-talk for the past couple of months. It’s helpful for me to write about my work toward health. And, I feel value in sharing for many reasons:

• I don’t think we talk enough about Anxiety and Depression in society in general.

• Therefore, those close to us don’t know how to help someone struggling through their difficult times.

• I don’t want others who suffer from feeling alone.

As most readers of my Facebook feed know, I suffer from chronic Anxiety and Depression, and that my Depression is held in check by the meds I take. My Anxiety, while much better than without meds, is still an issue I deal with daily. Followers of this feed also know that I am a fan of both meds and talk therapy. I check in with my therapist as needed, and I don’t like saying, now is one of those times. Again, I’ve been engaged in a lot of negative self-talk for the past couple of months. Thankfully, I’ve reached out for help. I’ve been seeing my therapist for about a month now; we’ve still got some things for me to hash through.

All this is a precursor to note that I’m halfway through a podcast on dealing with negative self-chatter in the brain. While I may need to give it a second listen with a notepad nearby, one approach I remember quite clearly is that I can ask, “Michael, how detrimental will the current issue you’re feeling Anxiety about be in six months?” Answer: “I probably won’t even remember it.”

There’s a lot of power in thinking about this mental time travel. It ranks up there with other advice I’ve received. When my internal voice has me beating myself up, I try to heed my friend Tom’s advice, “What would you tell a friend to do in this situation?” That leads to another gem. When I’m telling myself how stupid I am, would I ever say to a friend they are stupid? No. So why should I do so when it’s my internal voice? There’s plenty more great advice I receive — much from my wife, Rebecca. So that leads to tons of personal reflections I could share if I revived the blog — even if only temporarily.

Anyhow, I just felt compelled to share today as well as ponder the idea of sharing ore thoughts on Prone to Hope.

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A friend and I maintain another blog, the Intellectual Roundtable, because a question can be a powerful symbol, indicating not just the fact that there is something not known, but of a willingness to find out.