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My First Panic Attack

lost in the mountains

There is a cold rain falling and we are lost on a dark, narrow logging road in the mountains of northern Croatia.  It’s pitch black outside and the desolation combined with our traveling in previously war-torn country is where my irrational fear starts to take over. There are no signs indicating how far it is to the next town. There are no guard rails protecting us from the edge of the cliffs. The roads are so narrow and winding that I can’t imagine how we’d make space for an approaching truck, or even a Volkswagen for that matter! Joe’s at the wheel of the rental car and my mind is going into overdrive.  “What if  it’s too narrow for cars to pass by from the opposite direction?” “What if we plunge over this mountain because we take one of these curves too fast and our tires slip on the wet ground?” “What if we have a head-on collision because this mountain road is so narrow?”  My heart is beating so hard and fast that it makes my chest hurt.  I try to tell myself to have faith in Joe’s driving ability. I try to tell myself to let go and let God. But no matter how hard I try to stop the panic, my heart refuses to listen. It’s getting worse.  My brain screams, “Stop the car…just STOP and let me out!” But how can we stop a car in the middle of a steep, slippery mountain road with no shoulder?  There is nothing for Joe to do but keep driving.

I’m having my first ever full-blown panic attack. Escape is impossible…….

     I am a prisoner of my own body.  Heart beating, chest tightening, difficulty breathing.  “Why can’t I stop shaking?”  Then the wave of nausea and dizziness kicks in.  The catastrophic thoughts spin out of control. “What if I die right here on a mountain in Croatia?” What if no one finds my body?” “No, they’ll eventually find my body, it’s not like we are on a deserted island.” All this thinking just keeps the flood of catecholamines spilling into my bloodstream.  I feel completely alone even though I’m in a car with the person I love most in my life. Controlling my mental and physical alarm systems seems impossible.  I am watching the scene from behind prison bars, trapped in my own body. The tears cascade down my cheeks and I feel suddenly like it’s not even me sitting in the car.

Panic attacks typically happen spontaneously and without the kind of severe environmental trigger I’d experienced in the mountains of Croatia. For most people who have them, these attacks can happen anytime, anywhere and without warning.  Some people will even wake out of a deep sleep with a panic attack. The attacks do not usually last long, about 15 minutes, but for the person who has them, it doesn’t feel short-lived at all.

A Panic Attack is characterized by the following symptoms:
– Racing heart beat
– Tightness in the chest-Sweating
– Trembling
– Difficulty breathing, choking sensation
– Nausea, upset stomach
– Dizziness, feeling faint
– Hot flashes or chills
– Feeling detached from the world or from your own body
– Tingling or numbness
– Fear of dying or losing control

There are three major theories about what causes panic attacks:

-One theory says that they happen as a result of an imbalance of a chemical called norepinephrine in the brain.  Most of you know this chemical as “adrenalin.” Since adrenalin is released when you are presented with life-threatening danger, it makes sense that an imbalance of this neurotransmitter could result in panic.  We know that drugs like caffeine and yohimbine (a drug used by bodybuilders and men with erectile dysfunction) can induce panic and they both increase norepinephrine.

-A second theory states that it is the result of unrecognized hyperventilation (such as taking rapid shallow breaths) which changes your blood pH and makes you feel like you are suffocating.  Then the brain takes over and interprets the difficulty in breathing as lethal, “I can’t get enough air…I’m dying!” This starts a cycle of panic, more physical sensations, and more alarming thoughts about dying or losing control.

-A third theory is that it is based on a change in physiology. For example, low blood sugar or dehydration can cause physical sensations like palpitations.  Then, based on these sensations, again, the thoughts turn to a fear of dying or losing control.

Panic symptoms can also have other causes such as medical problems or taking drugs with stimulant properties.  Did you know that many over-the-counter drugs like cold remedies with decongestants can cause or worsen panic attacks?

…now back to the mountains of Croatia.  Joe carefully drives several more kilometers through the murk while I slow my breathing with deeper inhalations.  I remind myself to focus on navigating, instead of continuing to unsuccessfully ignore my body.  Finally, my prayers are answered. We find a lumberyard where there are some late night truckers loading logs onto a flatbed. Joe asks for directions using sign language and his best pigeon Croatian. The loggers look at us, thoroughly confused, but they do eventually point us back into town. Retracing our steps, we hit pay dirt–a beautiful little hotel with a built-in restaurant. The hotel is closed for the season but the owner behind the bar see’s how ghostly pale and shaken we both look. His response? Well, let’s just call it Croatian hospitality! He not only opened up a cozy lovely room but turned on the heat for the entire floor just for us. Instant shelter. A warm bed in a quiet, peaceful lodge nestled into the mountains was a mighty nice reward for pushing past the panic on that dark and stormy night.




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