In my update this week, I try something new, and share the story of a panic attack.
These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.
This week I decided to try a new format for my update. Instead of just relating the facts of something hard and good in the week, I decided to share a single experience and what I took away from it. It was a fun challenge for me, and I hope you like it.
I had already made it through half of the 90-minute meeting that closed out my workday. The smell of lemon pepper buffalo wings hung in the air, and I shivered as the air conditioner pumped cool air into my office. My sweatshirt was still in my car where I had left it after picking up lunch because of the spring heat. Silently I cursed myself for my lack of foresight.
Earlier in the meeting, I had commented and contributed plenty. It was a larger group, maybe around twenty people or so. I was already planning to taper off my talking to ensure that others had time and space to pipe in. As the conversation started to pick up, I noticed some small stirrings starting to grow in my chest. At first, as usual, it was like a whisper. So slight the faintest breeze would blow it away. But as it started to grow and expand into the telltale tightness I knew so well.
It was clear that if I did nothing, the anxiety I was starting to feel would set in and take up residence for who knows how long.
I pulled open my desk drawer and drew out my cheap spiral burn journal. The sweet smell of ink greeted me as I flipped open to where I had stashed my equally cheap ballpoint pen. The crinkling of the pages offered the possibility of relief. Healthy processing of emotions has often made a huge difference in managing through anxiety.
The smooth cursive strokes gave way to choppy scrawl as I continued to give voice to my emotions. At first, nothing of consequence emerged, but I expected that. Long practice had taught me that continuing to write without purpose or plan would often lead to thoughts and feelings that lived beneath the surface. Agitation began to spread throughout my body, and I turned off my video in the meeting.
Soon, the scrawl devolved into almost illegible scribbling. The agitation increased, until my arms were clenching and releasing, my head inclined one way and then another, and all the while my chest continued to tighten. I tried to keep writing, hoping it would help me identify and process the strong feelings I was experiencing, but it soon became furious scribbles. No words came out my fingertips, just angry cries.
At some point, the meeting ended and shut off. I remembering debating whether to mention to the group that I was having a panic attack. Being vulnerable and open is important to me, and my goal of increasing awareness and decreasing stigma around mental health often calls for the sharing of personal details. I decided that the drive to share was prompted more by a selfish desire for sympathy or pity, and chose to handle the situation on my own.
I texted my wife and let her know that I would be staying at my office for a bit, at least unless I was safe to drive. I made it over to a soft recliner that I have for relaxing and thinking, and sank into the seat. Often, coping with a panic attack means sitting in the sensations and trying not to resist them. As the name implies, there is a great deal of panic that shoves its way in, and the fear of what else might happen loomed like a dark thundercloud.
Over the next few hours, I reclined in my chair with a bottle of cold water, a bowl filled with crunchy Chex cereal, and a warm blanket covering me. I watched funny shows and tried to let the darkness run its course. Eventually I settled down and I was able to sleep well. The next day, I felt like I had been hit by a truck, and I needed more rest and recovery, but I had made it through again.
Mental health challenges can affect us in any aspect of our lives.
With few exceptions, all my previous panic attacks took place at home. I had begun, and surely my wife had as well, to connect panic attacks with home and the family in a way. It largely makes sense. I feel the strongest emotions, and have the most internal rules, around home and family life. This is the area of my life that matters the most to me, and it is not surprising that feelings can overpower me in this arena.
But my panic attacks, and my mental health struggles in general, are not isolated to my personal life. This is a truth I have told others in many presentations about mental health. We are complete beings, and it is impossible to segregate the different aspects of our lives and expect that nothing will bleed over. Our personal health, whether physical or mental, will impact all areas of our lives.
The challenge I give to myself, and to you if you accept it, is to notice one moment of strong emotion in this coming week, and lean in to it. Too often we turn away, pretending we never saw such a thing in ourselves. We bury those feelings in busyness or distraction or denial. But they never stay buried. They will rise up, forcibly if necessary.
So when you notice strong feelings, or even the glimmer of what could be strong feelings, stop what you are doing. Just be present for a moment. Take a deep breath and relax. Identify the feeling if you can, and then locate it in your body. If naming the emotion is too difficult, just identify the bodily sensation. It might be a tightening of the throat, or a quickened pulse, or a throbbing in your ears, or a pit in your stomach, or any number of other sensations.
Don’t chase the feeling away. Just try to sit with it. No judgment. Simply notice it.
That’s enough for this week. If you can do that, if I can do that, let’s celebrate. It may be a small victory, but it is still a meaningful win. Give yourself a smile and some kind words. You deserve it.