Tell Panic Attacks to Go Suck It
by Chris Hardwick on January 21, 2009
If you frequent this site I’m going to guess that at one time or another you may have enjoyed the crippling embrace of a panic attack. How could I predict such a thing??? Because people who suffer from anxiety tend to be smarty-pants-creative types, aka NERDISTS. Folks not blessed with the gift of hyper-self-awareness don’t really understand the rush of liquid fear that floods the body. They just think we’re being “kooky.” I have a joke in my act about trying to describe the feeling of a full-blown panic attack: “Imagine being F*CKED in the HEART.”
I had my very first panic attack at about age 10. Adorable! For some reason or other I thought I had eaten rat poison and was convinced that the flush I felt running through me was, in fact, poison-related. Fortunately I’m here to say that it was not poison, or at least INCREDIBLY slow-acting poison (maybe I should call my doctor). After that episode I didn’t get them again until college. Unaware of the concept of a panic attack, I was convinced that something was horribly wrong with me and I couldn’t leave my apartment for a month. The prospect of having it happen in public kept me under emotional house-arrest. It wasn’t until a friend of mine pointed out, “Oh yeah, that’s a thing. Lots of people have those.” The sheer knowledge that I wasn’t a freak helped ebb the panic tide for a while but every now and again I’d still get the hilariously familiar, “No…wait…THIS time it’s something fatal.” I’m here to tell you that not only are panic attacks NOT fatal, but I don’t get them anymore. THAT CAN ABSOLUTELY HAPPEN FOR YOU. In this article I’d like to share a few tips that I’ve learned over the years while navigating the anxiety steeplechase.
KEEP YOUR HEARTRATE DOWN
This could be the single most important thing to remember. It’s easy to believe that panic is purely emotional, but it’s not. It’s physiological. Emotions may set it off, but once the trigger has been pulled it’s “100% pure adrenaline!” as Point Break would say. (It would also say, “Ayeee am an FBI AyyyGENT!!!” and then we would hold Point Break while rocking and patting it and saying, “Shhhhh…of course you are….”) What your body is ACTUALLY plunging into is survival mode, or the classic Fight or Flight response. This explains is why you want to punch the air or run yourself into a wall like a 28 Days Later chimp. This impulse is left over from our forest dwelling days and is usually reserved for actual life or death situations. Think of it as an evolutionary gift that keeps on giving. And giving.
I’m not purporting to have a complete grasp of neuroscience, but if I were to take a guess I would say that our brain isn’t some wonder-organ that all of the sudden just appeared from the Ether and existed in harmonious wholeness (sorry, Creation Museum). It is the result of millions of years of more and more complex layers lumping over our lizard stems like a bad spackle job. When you feel that first twinge of panic your body is asking itself, “Am I in danger?” and for panic sufferers the answer is usually, “WHY, IN FACT I AM!!!” even though they’re not really—the brain is just misfiring, bless it. It means well. It’s just trying to protect us REAL HARD. The body then takes us down the adrenaline river ride that we all know and love, shedding our higher brain functions along the way until we end up a heap of panting flesh not knowing which way to run, reduced to LOLcat syntax as our means of communication: “Me wan tare skin noff!” It’s a survival mechanism with abject terror as a delightful side-effect.
Let’s examine that first point of entry, “Am I in danger?” Sometimes it might be enough to gently say, “No,” or at least acknowledge, “OK, I know what this is…” But if that don’t cut the cerebral mustard try to remind yourself how adrenaline gets through your body: though a fast-pumping heart. That is why it is CRUCIAL to keep your heart rate down. If your heart is slow and normal, you cannot experience anxiety. It is impossible to exist in both states. Remember, this is a chemical thing. Rather than focusing on how “You might really be dying this time,” focus on the SCIENCE of what’s happening to you. Your instinct may be to fight, but that just makes it worse. Focus on actually making your heart beat SLOWER. Pretend it’s a game and first prize is sanity.
As you probably know, panic & caffeine have an electrical sexual chemistry: the former comes right after the latter (terrible pun mostly not intended). About eight years ago my attacks flared up again after having been dormant for some time. “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING AGAIN???!” I pondered over a nice hot cup of coffee one day about five minutes before another one hit. When I went over the timetable of events in my head, there seemed to be a connection. Just for the hell of it, I Googled “coffee & panic attacks” and proceeded to enjoy the two million pages that popped up, warning of the atomic dangers of caffeine to the panic-stricken. I know, coffee is a bitchin’ dominatrix that kicks your ass through the day with a 20 oz. boot, but at what cost? If you can let it go, you should. You will experience almost instant results. Like not thinking you’re dying.
BREATHE, MAN, BREATHE!
Just think, if you had a panic attack 500 years ago they’d have thought you were possessed by some manner of dark spirit and you’d’ve had the panic burned or bled out of you! Stupid Middle Ages! Today, we know that simple yet proper breathing techniques are helpful with no loss of blood necessary. At the onset of an attack it will feel counter-intuitive but you have to trust that it works. Take slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth and let the oxygen fill your lungs as you push your tummy out (yes, I am a grown man who uses ‘tummy.’ I find it more palatable than ‘food bag’ or ‘shit garage’.) This process will help you in two ways: 1) A slowed heart can’t pump fear through your body, and 2) The very act of focusing on a measured activity will take your thoughts away from your panic.
Most people breathe very shallowly, up in their chest, and this is very true of panicky-types. Especially when you feel that chest tighten. When you take a good, productive breath your stomach should extend outward because you’re getting air all the way into your lungs. When you exhale, your stomach will go back in, pushing the air out. If you can sit quietly for a few minutes while doing this, you will start to feel your chest relax and warm, tingly bits in the pit of your tummy. Imagine those are spreading though your body. You will feel all keen. Remember, you need oxygen to live so get that stuff into you. Take a yoga class…learn to meditate…buy some new age-y book on breathing…play a sitar…whatever it takes. It’s worth it because you’re worth it.
Welp, I hope you’ve gained some insight today and that, if you are a panic sufferer, you know that you have hope, which sometimes by itself is enough to make the panic dragons stop dining on your soul. But keeping that heart rate below “NASCAR” isn’t just for panic attacks anymore! It’s also good for quelling anger, hysteria and just plain old stress (the vanilla of neuroses). Why share my failures and deeply personal experiences with you? Because I want you to feel better. No one should have to live in fear of oneself ESPECIALLY when the threat isn’t real. Don’t let your body trick you. It is possible to ignore your brain. It’s a process but you can do it. If you forget any of this stuff in the middle of the night, you can always bookmark this page and come back to it because the Internet is FOREVER. Now please get out of my head!!!