Imagine waking up in the morning, driving to work, and going about your day when all of a sudden you feel a sudden rush of overwhelming, intense anxiety. You feel short of breath, maybe even dizzy, your heart is pounding harder than it’s ever pounded and you feel like you might just being going crazy – or worse, like you’re about to die. This is what it feels like to have a panic attack.
They are an insidious betrayal of your mental and physical capabilities that often occur at random times.
I experienced my first panic attack as a teenager. It was a crazy sensation that jolted me out of bed in the middle of the night, and I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. My dad, an EMT in our small town, calmed me down enough to convince me that I wasn’t having a heart attack or about to die. I went to the doctor the next day and after undergoing several tests to make sure my heart was functioning correctly, I was discharged with anti-anxiety medication (which I never took) and orders to “take it easy.”
Since that time, I have experienced dozens of panic attacks, which I now know arise in clusters for me during times of high stress. I got them in high school, during my first year of law school, and during the last year of my law practice when I burned out.
I’ve gotten them in the car, in movie theaters, in my office, in class, and at home. Despite the name, outwardly, you don’t appear to be panicking unless you happen to verbalize your symptoms to someone. The panic happens internally – like the fight or flight response on steroids.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million adults in the United States and cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year ($22.84 billion of that total associated with the repeated use of health care services).
The term “anxiety disorders” includes generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias, and social anxiety disorder, all of which develop from a complex set of factors like genetics, brain chemistry and life events.
While all forms of anxiety disorder can impact the quality of your relationships, work productivity, and how you approach social settings, a brand new study from George Mason University, examined the correlation between six different types of anxiety disorders and physical, social, and occupational functional impairment and found that, “results overall indicated that the correlation between symptoms and [impaired] functioning is somewhat weak.”
While that might be hard to believe in the aftermath of a panic attack, I think these findings illustrate the complex nature of these disorders and may even provide some hope because anxiety doesn’t have to automatically lead to work/life impairment.
If you experience panic attacks, here are three strategies to help that are supported both by the science and my own personal use:
Exercise has been shown to be a promising pathway for managing certain types of depression and anxiety. When I burned out, I got panic attacks at least weekly. That in turn caused me to stop exercising because the feeling of my heart rate elevating was enough to cause a panic attack.
It was the first time in my life I had gone an extended period of time without exercising, and it was the exact wrong thing to do. To break the cycle, I enlisted the help of a very special buddy, my golden retriever Sadie, and started walking short distances with her.