Panic Attacks Occur Even When You Are Happy

How can you have a panic attack even when you’re happy? Here’s what happened to me.

Sitting in my new “office,” jamming out real progress on my blog and my book I had actually just been thinking: “Wow, this is really moving along great.” I turned my head to read some notes and a dizzy spell sent me off balance. I straightened up in my seat, looked around the coffee shop and took a deep breath to get my feet under me. Then my heart started pounding loud and fierce, my arms fell heavy at my side and pins shot through my fingertips as a gray haze settled over my eyes.

“I’m going to pass out. Or die. In Starbucks. This is so embarrassing.”

I swear I thought exactly this. In that split second before contemplating an ambulance, or a call to my husband, I actually watched a man who was watching me and I was certain I must have looked as unstable as I felt.

“Deep breaths. Deep belly breaths. Exhale. Sigh.” It was no use. I reached for my phone but I could only hold it. I couldn’t dial, I just stared, waiting. For what I’m not sure. Maybe “The End.”

If these would be my last breaths there was nothing I could do now and so I sat there “watching” my body do its thing.

Before long my racing heart decelerated and my eyes connected with my phone. I called my husband.

“Something is not right,” I said as I explained everything that had happened in the last minute, maybe two.

As I spoke, I remembered there was a clinic across the street. He stayed with me, my lifeline, as I tucked my phone between my shoulder and ear, shut my laptop, smushed together all of my notes like cards after a game of 52-card pick-up. I tried to jam it all into my bag, but when it didn’t fit I just carried it, a jumble of papers, my unzipped backpack and a computer awkward in my arms, and walked out, leaden legs and all.

My husband guided me to the clinic and thank goodness he did because I’m certain I wouldn’t have been able to navigate my GPS alone.

When the attendant asked if I could fill out forms, I said yes, then, as my hand struggled to grasp the pen, when my attempt at a signature produced only jagged lines, I began to cry. Sob more like it. I wasn’t embarrassed anymore, I felt spent, 100 percent drained.

I laid down on the clinic bed where a doctor eventually confirmed that my vitals were normal and the likely scenario had been merely a flash of vertigo that triggered a panic attack.

Self Doubt and Panic Aftershocks

I was given a benzodiazepine, a class of anti-anxiety drugs that includes Xanax. After it was clear that I could walk I was sent home in a haze of relief and dread. Relief because I wasn’t dead. Dread because it was now clear to me that a demon I thought I’d conquered nearly 15 years ago had not been eradicated after all. It was, in fact, powerful and threatening even though I felt happy, grounded, motivated, inspired.

The next few weeks were fraught with self doubt and my body remained abuzz, a live wire of anxiety and self doubt. I questioned everything about myself, feeling everything I’d done to get, and stay, better had failed me. I’d failed myself. I’d failed the people who have read my blog. And worst of all, if I couldn’t figure it all out and fast, I could be in danger of failing my family.

The one question that I couldn’t wrap my head around was this: “I’m happy. How can I have a panic attack?”

I found this same question from people in forums around the web here and here and this personal story here.

When I was in therapy for General Anxiety Disorder and Panic back in 2001, my therapist told me that anxiety and excitement were the same physiological response but that it was our mindset that told us to be afraid or to be excited.

My current therapist and I talked a bit about my underlying stresses — the loss of my mom last year and life moving on without her, having been struck with several physical problems in the past year (asthma, trigeminal neuralgia and a running injury that has yet to be fully understood 12 months lager), any personal insecurities about whether my writing, whether through this blog or my novel-in-progress, are really of value.

And while these are all valid areas to explore, I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure why I had a panic attack. Why at that moment? Why when I seemed to have moved past the grief stages and onto the living my life stages?

Reasons for panic attacks when you’re happy

A couple of physiological reasons could be:

  • Medications: My doctor and I happen to be exploring whether I am over or under medicated for my asthma. My medication contains a beta-agonist, which can increase nervousness, heart palpitations and tremors. In fact the opposite drugs, beta blockers, can be used to stop anxiety. This is just one look at one type of medication, so if you’re having panic attacks even though you’re happy, check your medicine cabinet and talk with your doctor about whether these can be causing anxious/panic side effects
  • Caffeine: I discovered a month after my panic attack that the two venti teas I’d had that morning were NOT in fact decaf . I have a chai tea at home that is delicious and caffeine free, so it never occurred to me to check the caffeine factor at my “office.” Only a few weeks later, when I decided to grab a cup before the train ride home and 9:45 p.m., I had a minor dizzy spell after a few sips and then lay awake until 4 a.m. did I engage my curiosity and discover that I had in fact been drinking a good bit of caffeine, a well-known anxiety trigger.
  • Hormones: PMS, PMDD, PPD, PPA, Perimenopause, let’s face it, I’m a 41-year-old mother of two who has faced mood issues before and after babies and am entering the stage in life when reproductivity starts its preparations for retirement. Hormones control everything and mood is no different.
  • Adrenaline: Adrenaline is released in a fight-or-flight response so it would make sense that an adrenaline rush from other triggers, including happy, exciting ones, can turn an anxiety-prone body into fertile grounds for panic attacks
  • Hyperventilation: When we’re excited, sometimes we start breathing way up high in our chests, taking short shallow excited breaths instead of using the whole volume of our lungs, nice and easy. Hyperventilation is both a cause and an effect of panic attacks so it’s possible that in a happy, excited state, our breathing is the thing that opens the door to an attack.

When you don’t know the reason

We may go through all of the lists, all of the reasons, and still have no idea what triggered the attack. While it is important to consider the trigger to perhaps prevent it from happening in a similar setting, what is more important is to consider our reactions.

When it comes to panic, it’s so important to listen to our body’s messages: “Pay attention!” “Slow down!” “Look at me for a minute!”

After facing a panic attack again I had to listen, to try to make connections to what I’ve faced in my life and how I’d been dealing with the stresses. I had felt I’ve been “dealing” and “fine” — these were not lies I was telling myself to cope, these were my truths. But something was happening, something I have to acknowledge and as my therapist reminds me, I have to give this space and time to watch, to give myself permission to dial things back if I need.

What I’m doing now

It can take some time to recover from a panic attack. After my coffee shop incident, I found that for a good couple of weeks I felt I was oscillating between waves of calm and near panic. I’d get lost in my thoughts, worry that another attack could be around the corner, worry that I may never recover and I’d spend my days creeping into “crazy lady” permanence. This is part of the danger of panic, the fear of the next round.

But I worked with my therapist and touched base with my coping mechanisms and accepted that life may have these bumps for me, but I’m no less me.

I put an emergency Xanax in my wallet.

I remind myself of the things I can do every day when anxiety is creeping up.

I recommitted to decreasing caffeine and sugar.

I accepted that I may have an attack and remember that it won’t hurt me, that it will pass.

Panic attacks even when you’re happy suck no less, but if you recognize the possibility, you may be that better equipped to handle them when they do happen.

How have you dealt with your panic attacks?

Woman looking out window via Shutterfly 

Panic Attacks Occur Even When You're Happy

24 thoughts on “Panic Attacks Occur Even When You Are Happy”

  1. How scary and I can really see how that would throw you for a loop. x

    1. It was scary, but also a good reminder to be more aware of my sensitivities and susceptibilities, which is something that people who have “recovered” from panic can sometimes forget.

  2. Dear Tara, I am so sorry to read this, you must have felt horrible!
    It’s good that you’re exploring reasons, and more importantly, a plan of action in case it happens again. Maybe also tell your girls, so they know what to do if they witness an attack.
    Hope to see you tomorrow ♥

    1. Luckily, now that I know that I’m still susceptible to this, I won’t be as surprised and taken for such a ride. And the “good thing” with panic attacks is that when you know, you can just ride the wave for a few minutes and know that you’ll come out on the other side. And yes, see you tomorrow.

  3. So sorry you are going through all this. It must have been really scary.
    Whenever I read your blogs, I think what a smart person you are to figure out what the causes are, find a way through it, and then share everything you have learnt with others. And if it’s any reassurance at all I think you are a wonderful writer!
    I had mild panic attacks caused by taking speed and ecstasy when i was in my teens/twenties. It effected me ever since, and now I can’t handle coffee. I do get mildly anxious with too much tea and chocolate, and I am better without any at all, but sometimes I find that when I try to do my writing I literally can’t think without some green tea!

    1. Thanks so much, Kate. It’s interesting that you said that about the drugs. I also used ecstasy occasionally in my early 20s and that’s when I had my first panic attack. That whole aspect is featured in my book. I would not doubt that knowing my already anxious personality (a healthy dose of social anxiety) those choices did nothing to help my mental state. Isn’t it wild that we know something isn’t good for us overall (talking even the caffeine and chocolate now) and yet it’s so easy to make decisions that go against what we know. I’ll have a little caffeine and think, see that wasn’t so bad, I like it. And then a little turns into a cup every day, then maybe a second cup on a particularly tired day, then the anxiety builds and builds. Sigh. This is life, eh? 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing about your scary experience. At least you were not too far from a place where you could seek help! The fact that you have analysed the possible causes will certainly help in lowering your anxiety I hope! Sending good wishes your way!

  5. I’ve only had one full-blown panic attack and I was in an anxious place, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. It would definitely be disconcerting to have it happen without any traditional triggers or warning signs!

    1. Yes, the unexpected attack can be particularly harsh, but any attack is such a weight to deal with. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I had a mild panic attack at the farmer’s market the other day. I don’t know what was worse, the panic attack or realizing I was having one and not sure what to do. Thanks for the practical tips.

    1. 🙁 I’m sorry you experienced that. I am still surprised at the power of these moments that just take us over. I hope you find some things that can help you if you have another attack, that you can feel OK about dealing with it. Best wishes

  7. Sometimes I am really great at kicking my anxiety out when it isn’t welcome. Other times I’m a pushover. A lot of times it just smashes a window and starts going through my fridge before I have a chance to confront it.

    1. It’s a balance, isn’t it! And sometimes all we can do is watch, let it do its rummaging, and then clean up the pieces. And breath. Best to you.

  8. Anxiety girl

    I’m so sorry this has happened to you, I know what it feels like all too well! Aren’t these happiness induced panic attacks the most rotten feeling in the world? I’ve had panic attacks since I was arond 4 or 5 (I had no idea what the icky feeling was back then, of course), then they got really bad at 15. Now it’s triggered by literally anything and everything. Too much pressure on me? Attack! Feeling excited or overjoyed? Attack! It has ruined many otherwise nice events and I’ve had enough. I agree, I feel so happy and I have a caffeinated drink and nothing happens! On the other hand, it makes me feel awful that my family just doesn’t understand! I know these things can seem unreasonable for someone who’s never experienced anything similar but still.

    1. So sorry to hear that you’ve suffered so long and that some in your circle do not understand. I hope you have a good support system around you, your doctor, friends, etc. that can help you find strategies that can take some of the edge off. Maybe consider asking someone in your family to come with you to a doctor’s appointment to discuss the realities you face. Having another sympathetic person in your corner could be a big help. All the best.

  9. David Scott

    All of that rung true to what happens to me.

    Very well expressed, I understand and go through exactly the same.

  10. Claudia

    Wow, just reading this makes me feel not so alone, I had the exact same thing happened to me a couple days ago, I had a panic attack after maybe a year of not having one, and I was having a really day at work my shift was over, I was getting ready to leave when my ears started buzzing and my fingertips got numb, at first I was calmed but it of course it scalated and had to rush to the medical service, my vitals were fine and as you said I felt some sort of relief but also worry because now I see I am not done with it can come back out of the blue , so these past days I have been feeling sad and worried , I haven’t even gone to work, out of fear of having another attack, it sucks!!! I just hope it goes away fast and I can go back to be me again. 🙁

    1. Hi Claudia, I’m so sorry that this happened. I see the comment is older, but I hope you’ve gotten over the worst of that fear of the panic and are now back on solid ground again. It’s so challenging when we can’t recognize the triggers or even when we do, but somehow the panic still comes around. I wish you the best.

  11. Wow I’ve read a lot on the web about anxiety and reading about all of your experiences on this particular blog really hit home. I get attacks out of nowhere even when I’m happy and it’s very frustrating. It’s hard to breathe I feel my chest tighten up and sometimes feel like I’m sweating. It can be pretty scary.

    1. You’re so right, it can be terrifying. I hope you have a good support around you and the resources to help you deal with this nasty experience. All the best!

  12. Rae

    Any tips for a single parent with panic attacks who wants to travel with young kids? I’ve been to a therapist for many years but my concern over what will happen to my kids if I have a bad attack while driving/traveling seems to be my recovery barrier.

    1. Hi Rae, I’m sorry you deal with panic attacks but it’s great that you’re looking for ways to keep living your life. I have to make this disclaimer first that I think the most qualified people to provide you with a structured plan for travel is you and your therapist. If you’ve been working with them for a while, they know you and your triggers and what strategies work best, but I also know what you mean by having one piece, this concern for your kids, holding you back. As you know, the fear of another attack is a key component of panic disorder. It can lay the groundwork for future attacks as you are in near constant fight or flight mode. Add to that the universal worry for our children’s safety, and you’ve got a difficult mix. It almost feels like you’ll never be able to see it differently. But if you keep working through your situation, I believe you’ll be able to find the right strategies to help you feel safe in travel with your kids. So a first step I can suggest, would be continuing to address this fear through therapy and journaling, but not only writing your thoughts, by using specific tactics for getting to the bottom of this fear of traveling with your kids. There’s an interesting exercise I like from a book called Mind over Mood (it’s a great resource). You can google it or the exercise itself, which is called a Thought Record. It helps you work through specific thoughts with focused questioning while you rate the intensity of these thoughts and emotions. Then it helps you develop ways to think about them in a new light with the effect of reducing the intensity of the emotion that’s attached to that thought. You could do it on your own but your therapist could help guide you as well the first few times so you have support while you get the hang of how it works. There’s also a method that worked well for me when I became consumed with a fear of flying with my kids. It’s an alternative therapy my therapist did with me, though some doubt its use. It’s called EMDR. You can google it and see how it feels to you if you want to find a trained practitioner if your therapist isn’t trained in this. Some people also use tapping, which is another alternative method for dealing with anxiety. I’ve never used it though I’ve read some on the subject. You can just do it on your own, don’t need your therapist. I would also suggest you take some time to consider the strategies you use in other parenting situations that can be applied to travel. Such as, when you drive to the grocery store or to visit friends, walking through museums or the zoo, what do you do to feel confident you’ll know what to do if an attack comes? Do you journal or do breathwork before you get into the car? Do you put a Xanax or two in your wallet so that you know if the worst case scenario happens you have an emergency backup? Do you have a plan to know that if you need to pull over on the side of the road for a half an hour until the sensations pass, the kids will be entertained and safe in the car? Small things like a written mantra that you put in your glove box as a reminder? Your therapist can help you draw up specific action plans to put in practice based on the type of travel you want to do and the level of support you will have with you. Then you can also put in practice a travel plan, do you start small and go on some local trips to build confidence and then discuss your ups and downs with your therapist? Do you look at a map of your destination for clinics in the area in case you need to see a doctor in the region you’re visiting while on the road? Are your children old enough for you to talk to them in an age-appropriate way about how you might need to take “relaxation breaks” along the drive, or some such discussion that can deflate some of the pressure from a possible situation? You can build in stops along a drive, or take a moment on a plane or train, to do some self-care: meditation, stretching your body, relaxation breaths like the 4-7-8 breath I’ve written about before. I know I’m throwing a lot at you. Some things may be useful, some not. This is a truly personal journey and it may take you time to find the right things that work for you, to understand or recognize your physical state in the precursor to an attack, to feel confident in the resources you’ve developed to get through an attack, to understand the thought patterns that are particularly triggering for you. So I wish you all the best and hope in time you find yourself out on the road with your kids confident and ready to roll.

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