Signs of a Panic Attack: My Personal Experience
Dr. Carmilla Solomon
You feel your hands start to get clammy, your head hurts, chest feels like someone is sitting in it. You feel the need to run, to escape to a safe place but there isn’t any place to run to. The walls of the car, bus, or train are starting to close in. You feel like you are having a heart attack and can’t breathe. Your heart is racing, beating so heard you think you can see it through your shirt.It’s not letting up as you try to breathe through whatever is happening to you. Your mind is going a million miles a second. Close your eyes, make it go away. No, here come the tears, the fear. It’s not stopping. You want to curl up in a ball on the floor, but this isn’t the place to do that. What do you do?
This is how I felt in my first panic attack, in 2018. It was shortly after I went home for my mother’s open heart surgery. I was sitting in a restaurant with my family. It was the first time all of us were together since the passing of my grandmother in 2006.
I did not want to go back to Michigan for anything. That place represented grief and loss for me My great-grandfather, my father, grandfather, and grandmother are all gone and while I was sure I had addressed my feelings about their losses, my panic attack proved me wrong.
So, let me explain some of the back story to my panic. In 1988, the same year my husband and I welcomed our beautiful daughter Jessica into the world, my father was murdered in a domestic violence incident. I never knew all of the details, and frankly, I did not want to know.
Then, around 2016, I started asking questions and I wanted closure. I spoke with my mother about it and she was totally against me taking this journey down the rabbit hole. Her comment to me was “let sleeping dogs lie”. Well, I am her oldest child, the stubborn one like she is, and I couldn’t let it go. But out of respect for her feelings, so I thought, I did it in secret. Not good considering that whatever is done in the dark, always comes to light.
I did not like what I found out about my father. His chronic infidelity to his wife at the time of his death, his substance abuse history and his history of being an abuser. Those were not my experiences with him. He was my father. He protected me, he loved me, he would not do those things to me or my mother. Me, no, my mother, yes. He abused her a lot while I was a child and didn’t know it.
This was a family secret. He abused the woman he was married to when he died and he abused the woman who eventually killed him. My mom was right, I shouldn’t have looked. Things took a really bad turn when my public record request was granted, and I receive a package in the mail that contains information related to his homicide.
HOMICIDE – let that word sink in for a while. I should have listened! I didn’t understand, I had so many questions but no one to ask. I became angry, then I became depressed. His case started to overwhelm my thoughts, so I started to distract myself with my work. Yeah, that was effective!
Fast forward to 2018 and I have to make this trip to Michigan. At first, no big deal. I am going because my mom needs me. She is my world, my only living parent. And I love my mom. She really is a powerhouse wrapped in a very small package. She’s only 4’9” but don’t let her pint size fool you. I was raised to be strong by her.
She put herself through nursing school while raising four children in Watts, California during the high point of gangs. We were more afraid of her than we were of gangs. When she moved us to Riverside, CA to a safer neighborhood, she made sure we knew it was expected that we all were to graduate from high school without children and criminal records.
We all did! We all became college educated. We went to church the same amount of time we went to school! Not even kidding about that one. My grandparents came to see us, or we went to see them every summer. So, to not be there for her open-heart surgery was NOT an option.
The flight from SeaTac to Chicago was uneventful. The drive from Chicago to Detroit where my mom lives was pretty nice. It was just my husband and me and since he’s my best friend, we stopped and enjoyed the ride, took pictures of various landmark and ate. My goodness did we eat some good food on that trip!
I did not make plans to see any old friends; for this trip, it wasn’t for pleasure and catching up, it was all business and that was taking care of my mom. I cannot explain why I made this decision, but I think I set myself up emotionally. I made the decision to go to the gravesites of my grandparents, great grandfather (whom I knew and adored) and my father all in one day.
I made myself an emotional mess inside of a 3-hour time period and then I expected myself to enjoy a dinner with the whole family the night before my mother’s surgery. What in the world was I thinking? I wasn’t and that was soon a problem for me. My make-up was ruined, my mood was awful, and I had this overwhelming sense of dread as if something out of my control was going to take place.
I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t pray it away, I could talk it away. It sat there, in my face, looking at me as if I had no choice but to make friends with it. Isn’t that what anxiety expects for us? That we are going to be friends and hang out in uncomfortable places for fun?!
Then it happens. First, I started sweating. I thought this was related to my blood sugar being low because I am a diabetic. So, I checked. All is well on that end. Then I noticed my clammy hands and the fact that they were shaking. Mom noticed, too. “Are you ok, honey?” she asks me. “Yes mom, I’m okay.” But I’m not.
As a therapist, I know what is starting to happen. I recognize the signs of a panic attack. I’m trying my deep breathing exercises, hoping no one else notices. Nope, not working. The wave is starting to hit. I feel my face turning red and becoming flushed. I drink some water. I’m trying to keep it together, to not embarrass myself.
My husband is now holding my hand, he kisses me on my neck and is trying so hard to reassure me that I am okay. Everyone assumes I am upset about the surgery. They do not know I had already emotionally drained my tank and all of my reserves.
Next starts the racing heart and feeling like I can’t breathe. It feels as if someone has tied a rope around my throat and is pulling it tighter with each breath. My chest feels like a cramp as if it is in a vice grip and that too is being tightened with each beat of my heart.
“Stop it”! I yell internally. “You are safe, everything is okay! Just stop!” I have to get up, I have to move. So, I go to the restroom to wet my face. Here comes my baby sister. She is concerned. Now I’m crying, now the wave has just crested and broke on top of me. I can no longer contain my emotions.
In the bathroom at Texas Roadhouse, I am in full on panic. I am out of emotional control. I feel my body shaking as if I’m being terrorized. My sister is trying so hard to help me, trying to calm me. She can’t; she’s now crying. She goes to get my aunt, who has anxiety of her own. She sits with me on the floor, we are crying together.
Again, she thinks it’s because of mom’s surgery. Through my tears, I tell her what I have done and been doing. The whole story, from the moment I made the choice to research my father’s death up through going to all of those gravesites.
I expect anger but I get compassion. I get love and I get her prayers, right there on the bathroom floor. I became very embarrassed once I am able to get myself together. But my aunt, who I love so much, reminds me that every day, God grants us grace and with that grace, we need to extend it to others.
Then we talk about elephants. She knows how much I love elephants. So much so that I have one tattooed on my back. She reminded me how much strength an elephant has and how they a close knit family clan; when one hurts, they all hurt.
Like our family. She reminds me that the reason I fell in love with elephants was that they represent strength and how majestic they were. She touches my elephant necklace and tells me to tap into my strength, to allow God to wrap His arms around me and comfort me. To not be ashamed of my panic, because each time I shame myself, I feed the anxiety monster. I find a lot of comfort in her words.
Eventually, I leave the bathroom and join my family for dinner. Yes, I have ruined my make-up, but I am with family and they love me. The rest of the evening is so enjoyable. I get to see my mom smile and to hug her and let her know how much she means to me. We end that night at my mom’s house, the whole family there, with the family minister.
We have prayer. I mean we have prayer! To have God ushered into that living room, at that moment, is so amazingly wonderful. Mom has to be at the hospital at 5:00 am. Her doctors and all the staff that are going to be in the operating room with her, are there too. And we have prayer again.
I felt blessed in those moments.
I work with clients who have experienced chronic, long-term anxiety. What they feel on a daily basis, I’ve only experienced once. It was so hard to stop, to talk your way out of, to deep breathe through it. Yet, these are all the things we, as therapists, teach our clients to do.
I started looking for more effective ways to treat anxiety in my office. I read Sheri Van Dijk’s book Calming the Emotional Storm (2012). This book is designed to help one use Dialectical Behavior Therapy to learn how to manage emotions. She defines what it means to have emotional dysregulation, what DBT is and how it can be effectively used to treat anxiety.
She reminded her readers to be patient with themselves as they read her book and that when they are ready, to turn the page to a new life. She starts with mindfulness and ends with improving your relationships. I loved this book and it’s labelled, tabbed, and highlighted throughout. It has been a new and effective tool in my counselor toolbox.
The next book I had already on my book shelf but never really got through is called Manage Anxiety through CBT by Windy Dryden (2011). This book isn’t what you think it is – it’s more! She really takes the time to break down anxiety and makes understanding it more manageable.
She starts with understanding the ABCDE’s of Rational-Emotive Cognitive Behavior therapy (RECBT) and ends with how to manage anxiety without losing self-control. In a panic attack, my clients talk about the embarrassment of losing control. So, this was another addition to my counselor toolbox that is also heavily highlighted, tabbed and labelled.
The final addition to my anxiety library was a book by Dan Harris. If you don’t know who Dan Harris is, he is an NBC news anchor who had a major panic attack-on camera while delivering the news! The whole nation watched as this man lost control on national television. (There’s that word again-control.)
If you have not seen the video, it’s on YouTube. Be careful, it’s a little difficult to watch, so have your tissues ready. His book is called 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help that Actually Works (2014).
His book is a story, a powerful story of how he allowed the voices in his head to run free, unchecked and never questioned. All of his doubts, his shame, his insecurities ran around in his head until one day, they decided they wanted to make an appearance on national television.
He talks about his breakdown, his shame and his eventual recovery from the perspective of hope. This addition to my counselor toolbox helped me to help my clients see that there is recovery and hope with anxiety. And sometimes without the use of medications.
My goal is to effect healing in my clients that is long-lasting. To transform one life at a time through the grace of God and His power to heal. I’m not a miracle worker but I certainly have a relationship with someone who is.
When I told my clients about my panic attack, it opened up the door for more real and honest conversation because now I knew firsthand what they felt or have felt for years. I do worry that it might happen again. I talked to my doctor about what to do. And yes, I hired my own therapist to process my own grief, loss, and anger.
I am reminded of how blessed I am to have my mom, my husband and kids and the rest of my very large clan. Think large in clan size, like elephants. I have a huge family! And we are mainly female dominated. Do you see a theme here?
Anxiety is real – scary and emotional – but there is help available. Reach out to a therapist or other medical provider if you are feeling anxiety or experiencing signs of a panic attack. We are here to help and guide you to a place of healing – to change some thought patterns and mindsets. We are here. And some of us have experienced it firsthand.
“Eibsee, Bayern, Germany”, Courtesy of Duo Chen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Elephants in the Desert”, Courtesy of Alexia Ellesse, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Family Life of Elephants”, Courtesy of Larry Li, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset Oleron”, Courtesy of Thomas Rey, Unsplash.com, CC0 License