Hello brothers and sisters of the panic disorder set. I’ve written a goodly number of articles on this site pertaining to recovery from agoraphobic and panic attacks, which I’m sure you’ll find helpful. I have stopped posting to this blog, however, and now make regular posts on panic disorder on my unagoraphobic facebook page. I hope you’ll become followers in your quest to become free forever as I did more than 20 years ago. Best wishes and see you on facebook.
If everything could just kind of jingle this time of year, folks with panic disorder might be okay with all the increases in stimulation. The problem is there’s way more jangling – nerve jangling – than the sweet little jingling we prefer. As a result, this is a time of great suffering for many people with chronic panic attacks.
When your nerves are already jangled with ever-present anxiety, the holiday season can easily put you over the top. I recall my most anxious times during my years with agoraphobia were from T-Day to New Year’s. Now I understand that my environment of supposedly cheery, festive occasions was loading up my fight or flight system. The colored lights, the crowds, the noise, the blurs of activity, were just increased stimulus as far as my amygdala was concerned.
If the same cycle occurs for you, I’d be interested to hear about it. Send an email if your panic attacks get much worse during the “holidays” and you want to hide from it all. I was nearly homebound on at least two of the Christmas/Thanksgiving periods. I recall feeling deep despair this time of year. Agoraphobes know they will most likely face demands to travel during the holidays, so their nerves get amped up by that threat.
You are expected to get things for people; online shopping makes life easier, but there are some things you’ll have to go out for. My increased anxiety level was probably also due to the contrasts between how everyone around me was apparently feeling – kind of happy and pepped up and bustling around – and the way I was feeling, which was desperately unhappy and frightened. I remember more than one holiday season when I felt that I could just no longer go on… I mean go on. I did, and so shall you my friend.
What I needed during periods of heightened anxiety was something to focus on; something I could start doing that would demand all my attention and take my fears away. I didn’t have much to turn to in earlier years, but once I discovered art and clay I had something to go to and begin creating. When you enter the creative process your fears will nearly or completely disappear. When you live fully focused on the present moment of creation, the past and future are just that.
My advice to you is to start making things for people. Make by hand every present you’ll give this year and enjoy the satisfaction of creation and the delight of discovery from the receiver. Your gifts could range from found and modified art to drawings/paintings/collage, to poems or stories or songs you write. Cookies! Your gift can be homely or lovely, but I guarantee that in the eye of the receiver your gift will be beautiful. You may discover a talent you weren’t aware of and begin pursuing whatever way you decided to make your own presents.
Schedule some daily breathing timeouts throughout the coming weeks and try to sit in meditation at least once a day. This would be a good time to transfer your extra stimulation to your journal. Make a holiday observation every day- remarking on particularly gaudy or tasteful things you saw or heard in passing, for example. Writing will help you focus on recovery.
Be extra mindful of everything around you this year. By focusing on one thing at a time you’ll greatly reduce your anxiety level. Study colored lights closely. Look at people’s faces and clothing with increased interest. Listen intently to each sound you hear and try to isolate it. Doing things of this nature will I hope make the task of being in holiday crowds easier for you.
Social isolation can be a serious matter for homebound agoraphobes this time of year. Reach out to others in whatever way you can – from writing nice letters to phone calls to visits. Stay connected with your world throughout the holiday time. Bake delicious things and invite people over. Give yourself the present of a comfortable holiday season for a change.
Writing is an important part of overcoming panic disorder and agoraphobia, and I’ll tell you why. As you’re working on your recovery program, you’re doing a lot of research and thinking and then writing about it in your journal. The hour of the day you dedicate to reading about brain science and panic attacks will produce an abundance of material to comprehend and digest. Your job as a journal writer is to select what is of best use to you and condense the information to fit in your journal. Think of writing in such a way that the essence of what you learned is now on the page in your hand in a style that will be easy to read and learn from months later.
As a journalist I sometimes faced hundreds of pages of material related to a story I was working on, and had to learn to find the good stuff quickly. Decide on some buzz words of specific things you want to learn about and then you’ll soon spot whether a particular article or book will be helpful to you. Getting things right when you’re reading and interpreting someone else’s point of view is not easy. Your job as a writer is to take the time to understand what you’re reading or hearing. As a journalist you can, believe me, be deeply embarrassed when something you wrote turns out to be wrong and it’s your fault. As a personal journal writer you don’t face that kind of pressure of course, but that doesn’t eliminate the moral need to seek the truth in everything you read and hear.
Your amygdala creates firestorms based on apparently flimsy and even false information, and that is your basic problem. You have panic attacks because your alarm system no longer knows how to interpret data and must be reprogrammed. This time you’ll want to do it right, so make sure you comprehend what you’re finding in your daily research projects and passing along to your subconscious.
I never fully understand something until I write about it. Writing is a process and that’s what’s good for you about writing. When you read things they pass on by and you remember particulars here and there, but when you write about what you read, you read in a different way; you kind of process the information . When I’m reading about something in order to write about it, I become inclined to see the big picture more clearly because I want to produce a story (blog) that will hit the mark. Write clearly and thoughtfully and you will be served by what you write – as may others if you publish in some way.
I recommend you start your recovery program by writing a piece in your journal explaining what you think caused you to become ruled by the fear of having a panic attack. Recall any early fearful feelings and talk about what your environment was like then. This can be the “before” of you and you’ll get to compare that with “after” when you recover and write about it.
Once you get your recovery project underway and are writing regularly, I have an assignment for you. I want you to read aloud everything you write. Does it sound just like you? It should because your journal is your voice and your voice should sound like you – otherwise it won’t seem real. If your writing doesn’t sound conversational or like you, it’s probably because you have the dreaded fear of writing. Even I, who loved language and reading from early on and spoke and wrote well, hated English class as it was taught all too often. Conjugating sentences should not be allowed under the Geneva Convention rules on torture. Learning that way promotes stiff and formal writing in my humble opinion.
I believe the best way to teach “English” or any language is to treat it as a spoken as well as written language, so that students hear what they write. The best way to learn to write is to write (and read read read). Shortening of the language for technological reasons may be doing harm to the written word and the future of literature. More about that in a later post, but for now I’d like you to focus on creating a clear, conversational writing voice if you don’t already have one. Your overall communication skills will be improved immensely when you write in the vernacular, meaning the common voice – the sort of language you would hear in your particular society every day.
To be blunt, I’m reading things online written by obviously English speaking people that make them sound barely literate. I’m sure they are well-spoken people who are losing the skill of writing in a flowing, descriptive, conversation like manner. If paper disappears, clear writing will become even more important with so many online voices misinterpreted perhaps because of fractured syntax. Just a theory… I’d love to hear what others have to say about the future of written language.
All of this is to emphasize that your writing will help save you – if you write clearly, with passion and compassion.
Proper, natural breathing plays a significant role in both depression and anxiety, but for kind of opposite reasons. In brief, people with depression tend to breathe shallowly because of body posture and anxious people tend to breathe shallowly and rapidly because their overactive adrenaline machine is filling up all the necessary fight or flight systems with fuel. I recall when I was highly anxious it felt like I couldn’t get a full breath. I would try to breathe deeply but couldn’t. Now I know it was because I already had a high concentration of oxygen in my system because my “fight or flight” system was fueled and ready for action. Trying to force in more air would cause me to hyperventilate and…. what’s the next step class?…. that’s right! …and have a full blown !$%==%&&!!!## panic attack.
The opposite could happen to a depressed person breathing so shallowly she fainted. The low oxygen rates from shallow breathing certainly cause lightheadness. I read a recent article on the Optimal 2 Breathing Mastery website about the dynamics of depression and breathing. Research indicates people suffering depression tend to slump and not use good breathing mechanics, which can raise carbon dioxide levels, reduce oxygen intake and create a number of health problems.
The site recommends breathing and physical exercises as perhaps a better treatment than any of the commonly used antidepressants. One contributor to the site reported that when she changed her posture by throwing her shoulders back and breathing with her diaphragm, her depression symptoms were markedly reduced.
All the research I’ve read on breathing and emotional well being indicates exercise of some form is the best antidote to depression and anxiety. Both yoga and aerobics sessions are recommended on the site. For folks with the anxiety breathing problem, the solution is really to begin meditatively focusing on your breathing so you can help guide it back to normal. Once you even start a safe, healing practice your adrenaline blaster will idle down a bit and go along with you in getting back to relaxed breathing. Essentially, you have to get in a comfortable as possible posture on a chair and begin to think only of your breath. Watch what your chest is doing as you’re breathing and then your belly. Your diaphragm expands in a deep normal breath and your body tends to straighten. When I’m meditating I focus on my breathing and counting. I wait until a natural urge to breathe begins and then take it in through my nostrils to the count of 4. I hold it lightly awhile and let it out through pursed lips to the count of 8. I think the key is to wait until your body says “breathe.”
It makes me feel good that solutions can be so simple. Focus on the basics. Breathe well and live well. Your pal Hal
Have you abandoned hope that you’ll ever be entirely free from panic attacks and all the misery they provide? I was in that depressing place of mind often during my 30 years in Agoraphobia Prison and wake up every day over 2 decades later grateful I no longer have to lead my life with that weight dragging me down.
I regularly read posts on the agoraphobia online support forums and am saddened to read people saying they hope to find a way to “cope with” and “manage” their panic disorder when there is so much evidence that you can “eliminate” the problem. The way I eliminated panic attacks and agoraphobia from my life was to finally put all my energy into recovery and the effort paid off. I’d like to give you a way to create a new burst of energy for yourself – a big boost to get you going with a recovery plan. You are, I’m sure, acquainted with current brain science on the capacity we have to make changes in our brain’s wiring; now I want you to become a serious student of the subject. Your assignment is to get a notebook and pretend you’re in class again as you listen to talks by 3 scientists working in the field of “neuroplasticity,” PhD. Rick Hanson, PhD. Richie Davidson and MD. Dan Siegel.
I am convinced that you will be so empowered by what you hear in their YouTube lectures that you’ll find the energy to throw all you have into a recovery program. These 3 professionals apply their knowledge in various ways, but at the center of their work is the ability of the brain to change through its owner’s efforts. Once you are convinced that your brain is not fixed and that you can actually do this… that you can completely overcome your fears and be panic free for life, you can get your notion back in motion.
To do so, begin a journal and do research every day to maintain inertia. There are two things I want you to understand before you begin your study: 1. Recovery will require hard work and dedication; 2. Neuroplasticity works both ways. You can change your way of thinking to positive, but you must continue the pattern to own it. Your daily task is to think happy thoughts. It could be worse.
Check in with the blog for questions you’d like answered. Onward to recovery.
I had a visit from an all-too familiar feeling last week. It had been over 20 years since I experienced the “aura,” that tiny bit of time just before you get body slammed with a panic attack. Everyone familiar with panic attacks knows that creepy, threatening sensation just before you lose control. If at that point you let the feeling overwhelm you, the monster will mightily oppose being placed back in the jar.
One of the many reasons I’m grateful I overcame panic disorder is I no longer have to experience that horrible moment (I thought). “I’m back Jack,” is more or less what I remember a voice hissing at me as I writhed in pain on my hospital bed. It was day 2 of my intestinal blockage drama. On that day, cramping with pain, I began to think about the gravity of my situation, and panicky feelings emerged instantly. I recall the instant clearly. I probably thought the equivalent of “oh no! and quickly put into practice many of the things I created in my past to overcome panicky feelings.
The object is to take your focus away from your sensations by focusing on your surroundings. This is a form of mindfulness I practice by keying in on particulars. I placed my focus on hearing at first and tried to identify and locate each sound I heard of which there are many on a busy surgery recovery floor. The thought I might need surgery was part of the fear package that presented itself to me as I lay exhausted with pain and very vulnerable. As soon as I recognized what might happen (panic attack) I began to listen intently like a safe cracker to every sound. And later I began focusing on accessories the folks were employing with their scrubs. I looked intently at hair patterns and at fingernails and counting my tubes. Counting my tubes was a task for a couple of days. Outward focusing also helped me tune out pain.
And I used humor when I was able, cracking jokes and generally engaging as brightly as possible all those who were tending my needs. It worked. I work. All the things I put into place for my and now your recovery from panic disorder are what helped get me through a scary health crisis. I had intestinal surgery 15 years ago that left scar tissue and a few narrow passages and my now forbidden fruit is mixed nuts. I was in constant, sometimes intense pain for 4 days. No sleep, no food, no drinking water (bits of ice). Now there was a test of the constitutional. It’s day 4 after my release and I’m feeling a little frisky. I rode my bike to the store and ate real food all day.
Hydrology Department officials met recently at the site of the blockage on the Lower Mathias River to discuss possible causes of the crisis. “We think it was either vandals or beavers that caused the dam-up,” said Department engineer Holly Goforth. She added, “We’re going to implement new rules against placing limbs, branches, clumps of leaves or grass or any densely packed materials into the Lower Mathias. We hope that helps, but the fact remains: that beavers can’t read signs.”
Psychology Today blogger Sarah Fader wrote a recent piece about what she does when paralyzed by anxiety. She advises making a list, an excellent suggestion for several reasons. Fader said she sometimes gets so overwhelmed by all the things she needs to get done in order to get on with, you know, life, that she developed a survival skill that allows her to go into total zone-out avoidance on the couch.
The very act of doing something – making a list was enough to get her into a positive flow, according to her report. After that, she advises doing at least one thing on the list. List making will be an important tool for you to use in your recovery. Making lists accomplished several things for me when I was plagued with panic attacks and anxiety: it allowed me to organize my thoughts; put things in perspective, and make goal setting more possible.
As Fader notes, the most important thing about making a list is that you are doing something, even if it’s only moving a pen around on paper. My experience is that once I got thought patterns moving in a good direction, I could keep the momentum by reinforcing and acknowledging what I was feeling. That understanding allowed me to move directly from the list to working on at least one thing. Your journal can become your place for all lists – except maybe shopping.
I’ve noted a phenomena common to many agoraphobic people I’ve connected with over the years. I’m trying to think of a nice name for it. What would you call it when someone exaggerates and distorts reality in order to make someone think something is way more complicated than it actually is? Practicing deceit is I guess what I used to do when explaining my craziness to someone who had never heard of agoraphobia before. And so have some of you, admit it.
Here’s the problem: we’re afraid of panic attacks. That’s all. It’s not like we’re delusional, or have a “”thought disorder” type of mental illness. We’re not psychotic, but we are disabled because of this one very strong fear. If your business partner or spouse is waiting on the other side of town for you to show up for a very important reason and you can’t make it, somehow “I’m afraid I’ll have a panic attack” doesn’t carry much weight. I found myself engaging in a lot of psycho babble to make whatever it was I had sound medically complex and almost dangerous whenever I was really blowing something by not showing up. My grandmother’s funeral was painful for the whole family, made harder by my not being able to show up.
I can understand the phenomena. Someone who’d never had a panic attack would think I was a sissy or faking it; that’s how I justified my elaborate and mystifying explanations of my peculiar condition. I was trying to make certain people believe I really was crazy, but in a nice way. I wanted my disability to seem significant to the few people I had to explain myself to. I guess there are times when you might want to use clinical language to obfuscate the reality of your condition. The one person you don’t want to deceive is yourself.
Keep it simple. If you suffer from panic disorder, what you are working on is a way to stop being afraid of panic attacks. Once you accomplish that, your problem is solved. Once you change the messaging in your “fight or flight” system you’ll no longer have false alarms like the ones your amygdala has been triggering because you gave it too many things to be fearful of. Every day that you work on your recovery program you are creating new neural pathways that will lead you to freedom. Keep it simple: all you’re doing is re-training a clumsy elephant
People with panic disorder suffer almost continually from the buzz of anxiety. Certainly there is much worse suffering in the world, but the feeling of dread and hopelessness that sets in with the constant threat of panic attacks is hard to bear day after day. Do you get the feeling that you’ve lost the ability to change your picture – that you have forgotten how or where to find joy?
Prominent Buddhist spokesman Thich Nhat Han says you’re not looking hard enough. The Vietnamese monk advises us that we possess within us happiness and well-being; we just have to find it. In his book The Heart of Buddhist Teaching, he says, “When you are suffering, look deeply at your situation and find the conditions for happiness that are already there, already available.” He continues, “Please ask yourself ‘What nourishes joy in me? What nourishes joy in others? Do I nourish joy in myself and others?'”
The place he advises us to go for relief from suffering is our memory bank. In his words, “If you are not experiencing peace and joy, you can remember having felt peace and joy, and you see that well-being is possible.” Summoning up past positive feelings when you are suffering can give you a present positive feeling. Employ visualizations as a tool to help you achieve this.
People oppressed by panic attacks and agoraphobia should be working daily on getting a positive flow going along the thought highway. Here’s to overcoming suffering through daily practices.