Updated: Nov 23, 2021
The last anxiety attack I had took place in the middle of the night when I was staying at my (newish) boyfriend’s house.
I woke up having had a horrible nightmare. Someone I knew, but didn’t particularly feel close to, had just committed suicide. My heart was racing, my hands were numb and I was dripping with sweat.
I thought I was going to die but I was too scared to wake my (new) boyfriend. I didn’t want him to see me like this; we hadn’t been going out that long.
I was pretty sure if I woke him and described my symptoms he would have probably phoned for an ambulance.
I had an inkling that this wasn’t a heart attack because I’d experienced it once or twice before. Previously it had been after a night of drinking and I’d associated these symptoms with alcohol. I hadn’t had anything to drink that night.
My heart continued to bang against my rib cage as if it was trying to fight its way out. Sweat rolled down my legs and across my stomach. My mouth was bone dry. I was shaking.
I grabbed the bottom sheet with my fists, stared into the darkness and hung on. Nothing I could do. I had no control. Had to roll with it.
I lost track of time but I guess it was about 30 minutes before the symptoms subsided. My heart slowed down. The sweating receded. The feeling returned to my arms and hands. I did get back to sleep but it took me a couple of hours.
I was so shook up I left at first light and never went back.
What Triggers Anxiety Attack Symptoms In The First Place?
What led up to that night? Why did I have that awful, awful thing happen to me in the place I was so happy to be in? Why did I end up having that experience which was so traumatic I had to end the relationship?
I went to my doctor and he was vague and he didn’t have the time to discuss it with me. I had many questions but he couldn’t offer me any clues.
The following weeks took me into some serious researching into what triggers anxiety attack symptoms. I was desperate for answers. I didn’t want a repeat of what happened that night.
What I discovered was one, it’s not that easy and two, I was going to have to do a lot of back tracking to get to a place where I had enough self trust that I’d feel safe staying overnight away from home again.
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3 Things I Realized:
I’d had a ‘panic attack’ not an ‘anxiety attack’. There is no ‘anxiety attack’ in the doctor’s manual so that’s a term that’s been coined colloquially.
My panic attack had been brought on after an extended time of anxiety about different things.
The real reason I had an anxiety (or, panic) attack was because my thoughts, emotions, behaviors and memories are all interconnected and currently out of balance.
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Why Anxiety Symptoms Turn Into Panic Attacks
We are like a sea of cause and effect. All our thoughts, emotions, behaviors and memories are interrelated and send ripples throughout our bodies. Each ripple merges into the next until we’re bouncing in high waves.
How This Happens
A negative thought produces an emotional response which kicks in a rush of the hormone - cortisol - which produce anxiety symptoms. These symptoms also then become extra triggered each time we think negative thoughts. It becomes a vicious cycle.
These symptoms then build up in layers and we can become frightened of the symptoms themselves, even forgetting what made us anxious in the first place.
Once this cycle is underway, and the hormones are triggered continuously, a panic attack then happens.
The panic attack is simply a build up of anxiety symptoms to such a level that the body’s survival mechanism kicks in.
The experts don’t know why this happens. It would certainly make sense to see it as a warning to STOP and LISTEN to our bodies and the harm that the anxiety is having.
I certainly sat up and took notice, go some help from others who knew how I felt and worked hard to turn things around.
The Way Out: Talking
For the first time I started talking about the anxiety. Thank goodness I did. That was the one thing that helped me get better.
I dug deep and fessed up to being addicted to drama because that’s what kept me feeling alive. But if I wasn’t careful, it could also damage me.
Getting tangled in other people’s business was one way I could perpetuate the negative excitement. It was my way of trying to feel involved. I also made a big issue out of little things, perhaps over sharing or challenging the unimportant minutiae of life. Then I talked about the past a lot seemingly unable to move beyond old resentments. All the while I felt misunderstood.
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The Roots: My Dysfunctional Upbringing.
My mother was the queen of drama and every day was one disaster after another. I simply copied her until I too loved the rush of cortisol to distract me from my emptiness. I never felt my shame or fear of abandonment while I was ‘high’ on the adrenaline rush. At the same time, because I was shut off, I couldn’t feel the softness of intimacy or accept the love of others.
That fateful night was the culmination of trying so hard to feel accepted and loved. New relationships are wonderful, but, for those of us raised in dysfunctional families, they also pose problems like:
Feeling guilty for standing up for ourselves
Not seeming good enough
Worrying about what the other person’s thinking etc.
Fearing the end of the relationship
It all amounts to a lot of dramatic thinking.
That evening I'd arrived at his house and was anxious as soon as I stepped through the door. I’d felt rejected but I wasn’t sure if I was being rejected or it was all in my mind. Consequently I didn’t ask and I never found out. Panic simply engulfed me.
These days I try to keep my focus in the “here and now” as much as possible. I figure that there aren’t any problems in the here and now. Unless I’m in an emergency situation, all problems can be dealt with.
I also noticed how everything I think about in the future is conjecture. It’s a figment of my imagination. I thought about potential problems 24/7 until they seemed real. No wonder my anxiety was sky high.
A look at the old familial patterns, meditation and Cognitive Therapy Techniques all helped me quieten my frantic brain. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced a panic attack since.