By: Adam Bertram
A personal account of experiencing panic attacks and their aftershock and effects mental health wise.
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It was 1994. I was in the back of my parents’ Pontiac with my sister beside me and my parents up front. I felt a little ill that day but didn’t think anything of it until that moment in the car when it felt like my stomach has decided it’s time for a little emergency! We’ve all probably felt something like that before, right? We’re in some situation where we have to go the bathroom RIGHT NOW, or things are going to get ugly. In that Pontiac, praying for a bathroom is where I was.
Picture a young teenager in the back of a car, writhing around like a snake trying to get this feeling to go away while screaming at this parents to get to a bathroom yesterday. We were at a stoplight, and my poor helpless parents could do nothing but tell me to calm down and that the Furrows lumber store in Evansville was in sight. “Just hold it for a little bit longer,” my mom told me. She obviously didn’t want to deal with the repercussions of what she had to deal with it I couldn’t.
We finally made it to the store parking lot where I was trying to open the door while the car was still moving. As the car screeched to a halt, I bolted out the door, ran to the store, frantically looked for that familiar restroom sign and once spotted, made a beeline for it. I took care of business and was immediately relieved, but something in me had changed that day.
I’ve had incidents like that before but nothing quite as powerful as that feeling of hopelessness, that trapped feeling of claustrophobia all while compounding the stomach problems by having my brain spiral out of control with anxiety. It was my first panic attack and is one I will never forget. Regardless of however many times, my mom told me to calm down; my brain would have no part of it. To my brain, my world was imploding, and it was do-or-die if this didn’t happen.
That feeling of being trapped and desperately needing to be somewhere else somehow opened a part of my brain that I never knew existed but not immediately at the time. In 1994, after my business was done, I was thankful that feeling was over but did not realize that my brain had been permanently changed. Little did I know that single incident would affect the rest of my life and make me realize that a human brain is an incredibly powerful organ for good and for bad.
Fast forward a few years where I was on summer break commuting to work at a college with about a 2-hour round trip. The commute was through no cities; only small towns with lots of cows and cornfields all around. Somehow during one of these commutes, I had to go to the bathroom again, and none was in sight. My brain immediately flashed back to that time four years ago, and that same feeling came back. “What if I don’t make it?”, “This is going to be so embarrassing if I don’t,” “Please, please let there be a gas station soon!” Eventually, I found one but again, I was sadly reminded of just how ugly a panic attack can be. For the entire summer, my anxiety grew astronomically with every commute. That process now told me that it was possible for my brain to generate that feeling again and I was terrified it was going to happen again.
It got so bad on occasions that, in addition to the blaring heavy metal music playing, I would beat on my leg so hard to get my mind off of the anxiety to where I had bruises. It wasn’t a good situation at all, and I had to stop one or two times during the trip just to remind myself that everything was going to be okay. Once I got to work, the feeling was over with, and I could continue about my day with no problems. My mind had attached the act of driving to a panic attack, and it was doing everything in its power to prevent that situation from recurring.
A panic attack robs you from yourself. It consumes your soul and makes you feel helpless. The more you fight it, the stronger it gets and the more hopeless you feel that it will never stop. Even though a panic attack, for me, is relatively short, it’s the aftershocks which are the worse. Your mind can remember how that made you feel and is petrified to do that over again. It will try to force you to immediately go back to the place where you’re most comfortable and stay there. Brain: “So, do you want to go that conference, huh? Well, you remember what happened last time, right? Uh huh. That might happen again, you know? Let’s just stay home where it’s safe.” If in that troubled state, your brain will fight _hard_ to get its way, and for some, they give in and never leave the house. For others like me, the initial struggle is hard but once you beat your brain back a few times it soon realizes that being exposed to a particular situation won’t always necessarily trigger a panic attack.
The Link Between Anxiety and Depression
When you hear those cheesy commercials about anti-depressants or look up ways to cope with anxiety, there’s always a mention of depression as well. The reason for that is because the two usually go hand in hand. A panic attack and the feelings afterward are an extremely traumatic event for people. Part of what makes panic attacks not just panic attacks but an anxiety disorder is that the attacks are recurring and the individual begins to remove him or herself from situations where the panic attack occurs. If an attack happened at the grocery store, let’s order online! If an attack occurred at a conference, who needs those conferences anyway? If an attack happens on the road, let’s just stay home forever.
This kind of behavior leads to an apparent downward spiral of life. The person spends so much energy avoiding these places and situations that their life is negatively affected. However, these people are not crazy; they just have an anxiety disorder so they naturally see their actions are ridiculous, but they can’t help themselves. This back and forth between logic and emotion eventually turns into depression. They get depressed that their life is like this and they feel there’s no way out. Someone with an anxiety disorder has a hard time discerning right now from the rest of their life. It’s hard to think that the way things are today will not be the way things are tomorrow or even a month from now. It _seems_ hopeless sometimes.
Not everyone with an anxiety disorder gets depressed, but it’s extremely common. The chemicals in the brain that control each emotion are similar, and it’s obvious that if you’re experiencing something terrible in your life and you think it’s not going to get better, that’s a recipe for depression.
The Effects of Stress on Anxiety and Depression
When’s the last time you were so happy you couldn’t contain yourself? Perhaps your son or daughter was born, you’re sitting on the beach hearing the waves roll in with nothing to do or just managed to get some time to catch up on a hobby you thoroughly enjoy that you get lost in. During these times, did you feel stressed? Probably not. These activities aren’t stressful because you have no deadlines, no pressure and you love doing them. Now, when have you been like this and felt anxious? Never, right?
When we feel refreshed, relaxed and have no pressure mounting on us, we’re happy. At these times, we don’t have a care in the world and are happy just being. Winning the lottery and laying on the beach all day with nothing to do would probably be a great cure for anxiety and depression but not everyone can be so lucky. We have to pay the mortgage, suck up to our boss, meet deadlines, knock tasks off the honey-do list and a lot more just to maintain our current lifestyle.
These activities ultimately lead to stress and if not controlled can lead to anxiety which, as you’ve learned, usually turns into depression. This is why you see overworked, overweight and unhappy employees. They have so much stress riding on them that it feels much better to get that temporary rush of carbs and sugar in that doughnut rather than eating some fruit. They’re looking for those quick hits of energy to keep up the pace they’re going. Does this sound like the average IT guy?
If left unchecked, these employees can have their own “bathroom moment” just as I did in 1994. Except for this time, the trigger isn’t a bowel problem but a problem of helpless overwhelm. The feelings are the same; “I can’t get out of this routine” “I’ve got to meet this deadline and then that deadline and then that deadline or else,” “I’ve got to make my mortgage, so I have to stay in this job.” The feeling that you can’t escape this rut soon sets in, and as the stress meter bursts through the top, a panic attack can ensue which starts a long, perilous struggle with yourself and your life.
I’m one of those IT people, and I work a lot too. I sometimes have an enormous amount of stress put upon me, and that does sometimes start the spiral over again. However, I’ve got a lot of practice taming this beast. I know the signs and (usually) can cope pretty well however there are some of those “Do as I say and not as I do” moments. But what about people that don’t have a history of anxiety and are prone to their own “bathroom moments”? These people are going to be in for a rude awakening when that stress that just seems like an annoyance today turns into a medical condition.
Whether your “bathroom moment” comes in a car, on a train, in the office or on vacation you’ll know it. They key is knowing the warning signs and nipping the problem in the bud before that moment happens. The moment you begin to feel a sense of overwhelm, take a step back and think to yourself if what you’re doing at this moment is truly necessary. Before accepting that new contract or taking on another project, make an assessment of what’s on your plate at the moment. Talk to your boss. It’s OK to let them know you’ve got way too much going on. Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs sometimes. We see the elephant and want to eat it all in one bite. Even though we know deep down that’s not possible, our desire for more, more, more gets to us and we fail to see that it’s still possible to eat the elephant just not at once. We just have to take many bites, one at a time.
My advice: Eat the elephant but don’t risk your health and your well being to do it.