Barf City: Panic Attacks & Me (And tools for YOU!)

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thrown up. No. Not alcohol induced, not because of a simple stomach bug. Not an eating disorder either. It’s the final stage of my panic attacks: I barf. My writhing stomach needs to expel whatever is in there for me to finally calm down.

I had my very first panic attack at the age of 16. I honestly thought I was dying. I was in a small Chinese restaurant with two very close friends and I thought that I had might have eaten something bad. It came over me so quickly, in the middle of a conversation, and suddenly I felt like I was trapped in a dream. I remember getting dizzy, sweaty, and unable to comprehend anything coming out of my friend’s mouths. I stood up wordlessly, left the restaurant, and promptly threw up.

I went home that evening thinking I was sick. That I had contracted some crazy dumpling-related virus and that this was the end of me. Oddly enough, when I got home, I felt, well, okay. Unbeknownst to me, the attack had run its course and it was now over.

I avoided any form of Chinese food for years. I’m not kidding. “It just doesn’t agree with me,” I’d say. Turns out, it wasn’t the food that wasn’t agreeable.

On multiple occasions following, I found myself having this same sensation: my stomach would start to turn, it grew difficult to focus, and I needed an escape. ASAP. I HAD to remove myself from whatever situation I was in, no matter where I was when these feelings came over me. Turns out, I was having panic attacks, and pretty frequently.

It was a disaster. It was exhausting. I began to avoid certain trigger spots. Restaurants, movie theaters, church, friends’ basements—any sort of situation where I felt stuck. I started to think I might be claustrophobic.  Quickly ruled that out because the bedroom I grew up in was about 12×7. That couldn’t be it. Maybe some form of social anxiety? Not that either—I got these attacks when no one else was around, especially if I was anticipating something coming my way.

I started to avoid people in fear that I’ll barf in front of them. I started avoiding certain foods, trying to pin down the problem. My world grew very small, quickly. So, what does a middle-class-suburban mother of a teenage boy who chooses watching Digimon repeatedly over ever going out do? Put that child in therapy.

I started working with a counselor my junior year of high school. Truth be told, my mother had a motive. We were going to go on a family cruise to Bermuda. To a ‘regular’ teen, the reaction to this news would have filled one with glee. Me? I cried after I heard. Sobbed, actually. I was terrified at the thought of being stuck in the middle of the ocean surrounded by strangers as I repeatedly threw up.

My therapist and I quickly worked on some techniques. Breathing. Mindfulness. Understanding that, no, I was in fact not dying, I was having panic attacks. This was a revelation for me. There was a word for what I was going through, for what I felt. It was something temporary and even though it never feels like it at the time, this too shall pass. I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t have the plague.

Fast forward to today, nearly seventeen years later. I do consider myself to be an anxious person still. I am not medicated, but I did start therapy again a couple years ago to get another grasp…or rather, a tune-up. I am still on my panic attack journey. They happen FAR less frequently than they ever did in my teen years, though, and I now understand them on a different, more manageable level.

As a result of talk therapy, I even realized that I had a few attacks in my childhood years, too, I just didn’t know what they were then.

There’s a lot of talk these days about anxiety. We ALL have anxiety. Some have far greater levels of it than others. Some anxiety is crippling. It was a burden for me. I started to think something was WRONG with me. I started to try to connect the dots to figure out the origin of my own. Why was this happening? Maybe, I thought, if I found out the root, I could unlock the secrets of my mind. It’s an enigma in there, but I did start to piece SOME things together.

However, this didn’t seem to magically ‘cure’ of my attacks. Think of it this way: The alcoholic. The alcoholic may have his or her reasons for excessive and unhealthy drinking, but simply figuring out that reason behind it doesn’t magically make the person stop drinking or solve the problems that led to it in the first place. The drinking is only one symptom of a greater thing. It’s a pattern. It’s a habit. It’s an addiction.

My attacks were also a pattern. More importantly, my reaction to the attacks became a pattern. I had to leave, I had to go to the bathroom, I had to step outside, I had this nasty mental spiral of telling myself, “you’re weak,” “something is wrong with you,” and the most vicious, “this shouldn’t be happening, I thought I got better at this.”

I am 31 years old now and I still get panic attacks. Much less frequently, but they still happen. My family knows. My closest friends know. Everyone I’ve ever dated knows. I barfed on my 30th birthday. I was humiliated. The guy I was dating at the time had taken me out to dinner and I spent 80% of the time in the bathroom.

The point is, it’s still a journey. BUT. I am writing this post to reassure anyone else who may also experience these attacks. There is a way to get through them, to make it easier, the anxiety more palatable. Take it from me. The guy who happens to be a bit anxious.

Here’s what has helped me immensely:

1) The anticipation of an event is worse than the actual event.

Anticipation anxiety has typically been the real killer for me. I invent these tales of grandeur of how things will play out before they even have the chance to. I also find that once the event or situation actually does occur, it’s nothing the way I had predicted.That is exactly what anxiety is: thinking and predicting the non-existent future. Challenge your thoughts. Is this the truth or is this a lie? It hasn’t even happened yet.

2) What resists, persists.

This is one I am still working on, but it’s also the one that has had the most positive influence on me. I’ve had fewer than five attacks in the last two years. Two of those, yes, were pretty major, but still—only two really bad attacks in as many years? That’s so crazy to me. I used to get them DAILY.

However, despite my progress, my inner dialogue during those last three or four attacks was very different than those prior. Instead of, “Oh my god am I dying,” it was, “You shouldn’t be having these now. I thought you were past this? Are you serious, this is still happening?” I was trying to resist the actual attack (Why wouldn’t I, they suck!).

This self-berating only caused more distress. Instead of it letting the attack run its course, I was trying to hush it out. Repression never works. In fact, it makes things worse. My body and mind were demanding attention….and trying to FORCE your thoughts to act another way is stressful!

My last attack had only a few nights ago. I was on the phone, talking about an upcoming event, and I lost it. My friend knew exactly what was going on. I did barf, but you know what, the conversation continued. It ran its course, my friend stayed on the phone, and we even started to laugh about it. That’s what I call a good friend!

Point being: accept the attack. When you accept and stop resisting, the attack loses its power. “Okay silly mind, do your thing, I know in my heart I’m okay. My friend right here with me knows I’m okay. I’m verbalizing everything that is happening. Run your course and be gone.”

3)  Have patience with yourself.

Breaking your patterns takes time and effort. But if you focus, you’ll find it’s mostly time with just a wisp of effort. Think of it this way. I’ve had panic attacks for YEARS. My brain and its neural wirework are now accustomed to triggers and a certain way of thinking. Gently do your absolute best to change that way of thinking. It won’t get better overnight. It’s a discipline. I used to get SO frustrated while in therapy. I couldn’t understand why my therapist couldn’t help me magically get better and rid me of my panic attacks. But that’s not how it works. You must, and I can’t stress this enough, you MUST, be gentle with yourself because at the end of the day, you’re the only self you’ve got. I guess that last sentence wasn’t so gentle. But you get the point. This may be the way you’ve been for years. That doesn’t mean this is the way you’ll be forever. Don’t expect yourself to be a brand new person in a week—remember, what resists, persists. New patterns take time to create. Be patient. Work with your mind and not against it. And, most importantly–celebrate the small victories.

4) Laugh

It has been scientifically proven that smiling can change your mood. Even if you’re faking it. Try it. Don’t take yourself too seriously. When I have opened up about my panic to close friends, they were first shocked. I do present myself outwardly as confident, collected, and positive. However, these attributes are not completely separate from being anxious. We have anxious moments. We have positive moments. The only time when you’re completely at peace is when you’re enlightened or dead. Chances are you are neither—and that is okay. Try your best to turn reactions you don’t like into a joke and try laughing at yourself. There’s a recurring gag joke (no pun intended!) in South Park where Stan, one of the main characters had a crush on a girl named Wendy. Whenever she would speak to him, he’d throw up right in her face out of sheer nerves. This used to make me laugh so hard because I connected to this. Stan’s experience was an animated version of myself and I could laugh at it, take joy in it.

5) Be Honest with Yourself and those Close to You.

I have been MUCH more vocal in recent years about what is happening to me when an attack is on-coming. I used to hide it. I used to think I might RUIN something for someone else if I had to excuse myself. I quickly learned that some people just don’t care. My closest friends today know exactly what is going on. Get some lifelines. Find people you trust. It’s wonderful.

6) Have a Healthy Toolkit

When you start to get familiar with the bodily sensations of a panic attack, you start to also figure out what is comforting for you and what isn’t. For me, it was excusing myself. I HAD to find something I could control because what was happening in my head was uncontrollable. Removing myself was something I could handle, that I could enact on my own. Try to self-meditate. Try to express exactly how you feel to a nearby individual (if you are that friend for someone suffering anxiety or an oncoming attack, please, oh please, do not try to calm the person by saying, everything is alright. Your presence and willingness to just listen is enough!). The point is, find some sort of healthy coping mechanism to help you bear the panic attack. To each their own.

7) Do your Homework.

I have an assignment for you. Open up a new doc and create three columns. In the first column, write down the pesky thought that can arise when you have an attack. In the second column, write down the most likely origin of that thought. In the third column, counter your original thought. You could even add a fourth column and write a counter to the counter. I find that a panicked mind is a mind that scrambles to find some sort of excuse or lie. I have my column sheet active in my Google Drive. This is part of my 2017 Tool Kit. I bring up this page whenever I start to get very anxious. I just beam it up right on my phone and it’s there for me.

Here’s an example:

Column 1: Oh no. I’m stuck here in this restaurant. There are no windows. It’s crowded. I don’t know where the bathroom is. I don’t know where the exit is. This scenario typically freaks me out. My stomach is starting to turn. I’m going to throw up and everyone is going to think something is wrong with me or pass judgement.

Column 2: When I used to dine with the family, I used to freak that I’d ruin the family meal if I grew anxious. There were a few instances while growing up…that the bickering family would create a tense environment and make me anxious. I would grow so nervous and have to throw up. This started at a young age.

Column 3: Sure. That did happen a few times. But has this happened EVERY single time you’ve eaten out? Has this happened EVERY single time you’ve eaten with your family? Do you ALWAYS feel sick to your stomach when its time to eat? No.

Column 4: Well screw that, it’s going to happen this time. I’m sure of that! SO. Why don’t you get up and see where the bathroom is? The restaurant is crowded but that probably means it’s good. I can’t imagine EVERYONE in here being a total asshole. I’m sure if something were to happen to me there would be SOMEONE in here would help.

The point is. Collect your thoughts BEFORE the event.

Anxiety can arise at any time. You can have those moments of feeling good, loving life, and then when the panic comes about….all that straight, un-bothered, positive thinking goes right out the window. This sheet will be there for a gentle and clear reminder.  So. Do this assignment when you’re feeling calm and good and it will be there for you when you’re not.

Friends of mine my Sophomore year of college put together a quick birthday get together for me. In sheer anticipation, I freaked. I panicked and called a friend. I’ll never forget what she said:

 “It’s your birthday, you can barf if you want to.”

It changed my way of thinking which resulted in a change of feeling. So what? Let’s say I did barf. SO WHAT. And guess what, I didn’t. Friends, I by no means am a therapist or counselor. What can I say though, from personal experience, is that you aren’t going to get rid of the anxiety completely. And yes, that in and of itself can be terribly frustrating. Panic attacks suck. I won’t sugarcoat it. I used to feel so unbelievably embarrassed about having them. I was so afraid of the judgement. But the only one really judging me has been me. Take that pressure off.

I have met a few others who have had similar experiences with panic attacks, but everyone’s experience is different. Some get the racing heart, some get the short breathing, but to each their own really. I recently YouTubed panic attacks just to listen to what others had to say. Well. A LOT of people have a LOT to say about the matter. It’s much more common than you might think.

One particular video from a twentysomething panic attack-sufferer stood out. The video had one simple instruction: try to force yourself to have a panic attack right now. Like the loser I am, I of course tried. I TRIED REALLY HARD. I couldn’t get myself to do it. It was as much something a couldn’t purposefully induce as it was something I couldn’t get rid of. The knowledge that it’s not me that’s doing this to myself means something. It’s just another lemon life has thrown at me, but I can learn to make lemonade from it, and so can you.

The point, plain and simple: you are not your thoughts.

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