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Panicking in Pontiac

  • Posted on July 30, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Dear Christine,

I’ve suffered from anxiety for many years. It seems to come and go and lately it’s back with a vengeance. My triggers are things like being in line at a grocery store and feeling like I won’t be able to make it through the checkout without passing out or freaking out.For years, I avoided doing the shopping. The other trigger is being in a meeting with co workers and feeling the need to run out before they see that I’m having a panic attack. Unfortunately, my job depends on me being able to be in meetings.

I tried therapy years ago, used drugs like Xanax and Prozac. I’ve even used a shot of booze to clam me. I’m really mad at myself and don’t want to use drugs or alcohol in order to avoid a panic attack.

I’ve been dealing with this at different points in my life so I’m fairly good at hiding it but by the time I get out of a meeting, I’m exhausted and also relieved that “I made it”. I don’t want to feel the fear in the first place though. Is there any way, after all these years of it coming and going, that I could get rid of it forever, or is it something I’m stuck with for life?

Panicking in Pontiac

Dear Panicking, Anxiety is very difficult to live with and can narrow people’s lives considerably. People who have never experienced panic don’t understand how it can dominate your life, making it unlivable. Don’t be angry with yourself about it. It’s not something you are doing “on purpose” but rather part of how your brain is wired. Some people have panic as a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), like from a car accident or a robbery. This is an effect of theenvironment that has shaped you. Others have inherited it genetically along with half of their personality (half nature, half nurture). Some people acquire it from exposure to substances. I knew someone who panicked driving on freeways, so he avoided them as much as absolutely possible. Turns out he was a marijuana smoker, of 20 years or so, and the panic was a side effect of smoking pot. He was able to lessen the panic and be able to drive on freeways when needed after quitting pot for a couple of weeks. Paranoia and panic are common side effects of marijuana use.

There are cognitive behavioral techniques (CBT) that can help alleviate panic and anxiety, but nothing I am familiar with completely removes it. Some methods include Exposure techniques, in which you submit yourself to triggering environments or situations in small doses, using calming techniques you have learned in talk therapy. As you gain more control over the panic, you expand the exposure to the point where you can function as you wish.

Another CBT approach is through Energy Psychology. This group of techniques utilizes breathing, balancing the internal energy force the Chinese call Qi, and using Eye MovementDesensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). This technique is usually done in a therapist’s office, after you have learned some techniques to calm yourself (creating and going to a “safe place” )and learning how to process these panic experiences when in therapy and learn to therapeutically dissociate them when you are living your life. EMDR can be a very powerful tool in the therapeutic setting, helping you address whatever the trigger is, resolve whatever trauma might be behind it, and let go of it so you can not react to those triggers. There are ways to “do” EMDR by yourself, the way Dr. Francine Shapiro initially figured out how to create a therapeutic technique. She was taking a walk in the woods, scanning the ground in front of her feet for rocks and roots, to make sure she wouldn’t trip. After 45 minutes of walking this way, she realized that something upsetting she was thinking about at the beginning no longer bothered her. She had the wisdom and creativity to wonder what themechanism is that helped process that upset. She narrowed it down to sweeping eye movements back and forth while thinking about something that upsets you. She distilled thisinto a therapy technique, but you can replicate it any time you take a walk, swinging your arms and legs freely (not carrying a bag over your shoulder or in your hands) and simply thinking about what bothers you. I have used this in my life when cutting the lawn and thinking, for example, about a rift between my sister and me that felt unsolvable when I started mowing. Forty five minutes later, the lawn looked neat and I realized I was no longer feeling unresolvedabout the situation with my sister. Walking like this is a way of generating “dual hemispheric processing” or allowing thoughts to be processed by the more emotional right brain with the more logical left brain (to simplify brain processing!) through the corpus callosum, the bundle of neurons that connects both halves of the brain. This is, roughly speaking, what the brain does during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. That is the phase of sleep when we often have vivid dreams and are usually completely still, so we do not act out those dreams. It seems to be a time when the brain is connecting experiences of the past 48 –72 hours with long term memory associations, knitting new experiences in the fabric of our sense of self and experience.

Panic serves a biological purpose, even if your brain is taking that to an extreme. Medications like Xanax can help, as that is a central nervous system depressant, like alcohol. But, likealcohol, it is addicting and the longer you use it the more you need to feel the effect. Longer acting medicines like Prozac seem to reduce anxiety and depression together, but not perfectly. Often side effects and/or inadequate relief from anxiety causes people to quit this (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) SSRI medication.

People who are anxious are generally encouraged not to drink caffeine and to get physical exercise every day, as the caffeine’s side effect often is anxiety, and the exercise can help dissipate muscle tension and sometimes provide emotional relief as well. Getting enough sleep is helpful too, as well as eating a healthy diet with lots of green leafy and colorful vegetables and fruits and whole grains.

One of the things I notice with many clients with anxiety and panic is that they are living in denial of something. For example, someone who is gay but in the closet about it to avoid fundamentalist family members from judging and rejecting them might often experience panic attacks. Also, it could be a parent of a gay or lesbian child, or some other situation that the parent finds distasteful, such as a child in prison, could cause the parent to hide this information from other family, friends or community, causing them to live a double life, and panic results. Living in authenticity, being fully who you are, brings a sense of peace and contentment, even thought getting there may mean you have to give up relationships or other important things in your life (job, housing, family, friends). Another example is a man who was a top salesman in his company, but was terrified of giving public addresses in board meetings, sales encounters and the like. I discovered that he also was earning a high income,well over 6 figures and he loved gardening. But in his neighborhood, yard work was hired out to the landscaping companies with uneducated immigrants doing the raking and pruning. Though gardening was an expression of himself and grounded him, literally, he only gardened in the back yard where neighbors couldn’t see him. Once, when he was in front, a neighbor drove up and asked to hire him for his own yard! That salesman was mortified!

So, if you haven’t tried CBT or Energy Psychology therapy, I recommend those techniques for those who don’t like using medications or those who have found medications lacking. Please be gentle with you, not angry. It’s not like you are setting yourself up. If this is the unique design of your brain, you need to find a way to work with it, not criticize yourself. You may have to live this way for your life, but you may well be able to find a way to make your brain more livable for the life you want to live. Take care,