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?”
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.
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