My palms were sweaty, my heart was pounding, I felt like I was coming out of my body hovering over the whole embarrassing scene. I looked at the woman next to me with saucer eyes and said, “I’m so sorry you have to sit next to the crazy lady with a newborn.” I was holding my fussy newborn, completely losing it on the airplane…in first class none-the-less.
I had managed to travel cross country 3 weeks after giving birth and I was feeling pretty good. I felt great and newborns sleep most of the time so why not hop on a plane to Ohio? My trip was great, I have won over my fear of flying going to my destination but for some reason panic struck on my way home. Panic attacks are elusive that way, they can come on when you least expect it.
The first panic attack I ever had was during my first class, freshman year of college. I had no idea what I was feeling all I knew was that I thought I was going to die, I couldn’t move, I was extremely sweaty and it all happened in my head… somehow I managed to hide it from everyone. Years later during a therapy session I learned that we have an internal stress capsule and when that capsule reaches capacity the cap flies off, adrenaline is released in the body and panic ensues. Patterns are unveiled after I have a panic attack….I’m not usually taking time for myself, eating, exercising or resting well and most of the time I put too many expectations on myself and others.
Back to my most recent panic attack on the airplane… I had done so well flying to my destination, even comforting a fellow passenger who had never flown before. While nursing my baby I noticed the tears of fright in her eyes at take off so I held her hand and whispered, “this is the hardest part.” When we arrived I saw relief wash over her like baptism water; she survived her maiden voyage. I felt a relief of my own as I always do… it’s like a false sense of control is given to me.
Control! It has everything to do with control. I’m a therapist I KNOW this and yet I can not find solace from these subsequent panic attacks that strike at whim. On my return flight I felt a sense of urgency to get home, to feel my feet on the ground and wrap my arms around my family members. My father found out I was in a middle seat in the back row while flying to my destination so he suprised me with a window seat in first class fly home. I was soooooo out of place. Here I was wearing a baby wrap, draped in a nursing cover, holding a pacifier and nursing my fussy baby in first class. The turbulence started and trigged my anxious/morbid thoughts. I looked over to the woman next to me who clearly wanted to read her Kindle and I asked her, “are we okay, “is this normal?” “Oh yes”, she said, “see the flight attendants? They’re up and walking around, they’re not worried.” That helped me for a minute. It always helps me to verbalize my fear to someone even if it sounds ridiculous. It distracts me from the horrible thoughts I have. I focused on my baby but the waves of panic came like set waves in the ocean; then came the emotions. Why do I still struggle with this LORD? Why can’t I just trust you?! I thought I was healed from this, I just gave birth to a baby without medication… I can do anything right? Then why do I feel like I’m going to die again? This isn’t fair, I’m so weak.
I wish I could tell you that I have the answers to those questions but I don’t… I guess I’m still on that quest to surrender and thats okay. As a therapist that struggles with anxiety and panic here are 3 ways I’ve learned to endure them:
Don’t judge the panic
Note when you start to feel anxiety and panic symptoms creep up without judgment. This is basically just labeling how you feel without telling yourself that it means you’re going to DIE. For example when I feel a panic attack come on I remind myself that the adrenaline I feel is normal for me in situations that I feel I have no control over and that it doesn’t mean that my worst fears are going to come true.
Imagine the panic is like a wave
When I start to feel symptoms of panic I imagine a literal wave in my mind. A wave has a beginning, middle and end or the crest, peak and spray. Waves seemingly build up in the ocean out of nowhere and then rise and fall… they come and they go. That’s a phrase I say to myself when I’m experiencing a panic attack.
Think on good things
There’s a Bible verse that explains this idea well. Instead of focusing on replacing your negative thoughts during a panic attack because that might seem impossible, focus on adding positive ones or depositing good thoughts while experiencing panic. For example when I was in my panic attack horrible distorted thoughts circled my mind like imagining the death of a child or not being able to save my child or what it would feel like if my worst fears came true. I could not get off this hamster wheel so I remembered this verse:
Philipians 4:8, And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.
My thoughts slowly became lighter and I began to visualize good moments in the future like getting home to hug my other children, imagining my daughter in a few months, and planning other fun family trips.
When you’re in the middle of an anxiety or panic attack breathing is short and often difficult. When you tell yourself to breathe normally it slows down rapid breathing, bringing more oxygen to your muscles releasing tension from your body.
Orient yourself to time and place
Panic and anxiety are a mental minefield. It’s amazing how much one can suffer in their mind without saying a word. The #1 thing that helps me during a panic attack is to verbalize to someone else how I’m feeling because this act orients me to the “real world” around me and not the distorted one in my mind. If you don’t have someone to talk to, look at objects around you like the chair you’re sitting in and notice all the details you can about that chair. Label what is happening around you. Chances are you will be able to calm down more quickly. Even though your mind and body feel like they are in a life or death situation, orienting yourself to what is really happening around you will help you to tell yourself the truth… that you’re okay.
I’ve lived with anxiety for about 4 years now and have experienced panic attacks on and off since I was 18 years old. The thing is I don’t let them define my life or determine what I do. You must continue living and doing the things you love. I’m a huge advocate for therapy and even medication if needed. Please ask for help if you are suffering; you don’t need to suffer alone. There are many resources to help someone with anxiety and panic disorder.
Hang in there friends give yourself lots of love and grace!