The first time it happened, I thought I was dying.

Paul and I were just relaxing after putting the kids to bed, sitting around and watching a movie together, when I felt my heartbeat stutter.  That’s how it started.

“What was that?” I wondered.  Unarticulated fears and the words “heart attack” flashed frighteningly across my mind, and all at once I couldn’t catch my breath.

“Paul, something’s wrong,” I gasped, and found myself suddenly swirling in the center of a storm of horrible sensations.  My arms and hands went numb and cold, my heart raced as if it was trying to escape my rib cage, and I dashed to the bathroom, sure that I was going to throw up.  Hovering helplessly over the toilet, I was shaking all over as wave after wave of nausea rolled over me.  My chest was in the grip of a giant fist, the pressure increasing along with a choking sense of fear.  Even though I felt like I couldn’t get enough air, I was hyperventilating, and the lightheadedness cast an impression of unreality over everything.

Paul was worried.  He wanted to take me to the emergency room, but I thought we should call Urgent Care first.  I hated to wake the kids up and drag them to the hospital for a three hour ordeal, and as scary as my symptoms were, they didn’t seem like classic heart attack symptoms.  The Urgent Care doctor agreed with me.  He ran down the list of signs:  chest pain, fainting, shortness of breath, shaking, weakness or pain localized to one side of the body.  I had some of them, but not the biggies.  He advised me to get some rest and come in the next day to be checked out.

Get some rest.  Not much chance of that.  Instead, I lay my head on Paul’s chest, shaking, trying to take deep breaths, and clutching his shirt like a drowning swimmer clinging to the lone buoy in a dark and angry ocean.  After a small eternity, sleep finally drew her curtains around my exhausted body.

I’ve already written about the medical follow up to my heart attack scare.  A visit to the cardiologist and a battery of tests confirmed the good news that I was in perfect heart health.  The palpitations were judged to be the result of a high caffeine intake, and I promptly cut the offending drug out of my life.  The palpitations themselves didn’t return, thankfully.

What I didn’t write about at the time, partly because it was still too emotional to talk about, was all the other stuff that happened that night.  The nausea, the shaking, the hyperventilating, the hot and cold flashes, and, worst of all, the disconnected feeling of terror rocketing around in my head.  I looked up my symptoms at WebMD and made an appointment with my general practitioner, who confirmed my diagnosis.

Panic attack.

“Tell me,” I begged Mark, our friend and doctor, through tears, ” Tell me how to make it never happen again.”

He didn’t guarantee that, but said that cutting my caffeine consumption and trying to manage my stress was a good start.  He also gave me a small prescription for Lorazepam, a benzodiazapine that is sometimes prescribed to treat panic.  He said that if I ever experienced another attack as intense as that one, I could take a half a tablet and it would take the edge off of it.  He recommended that we take a wait-and-see approach to any further intervention, until we determined whether or not the dietary change would help.

And it did help.  I ended up using the Lorazepam twice while my body came down from the caffeine saturation, but after a couple of weeks without caffeine, I felt completely recovered.  Months passed uneventfully, and I was pretty sure my experience with panic was behind me.  I wish I’d been right about that.


Unfortunately, I don’t think caffeine or stress told the whole story.  This summer, the attacks started back up again.  Is the cause physiological or psychological?  I don’t know.  I usually get them in the evening before bed or first thing in the morning.  It can’t be caffeine, because I’m not drinking any, and I don’t think it’s stress; I’ve been on summer break for the past three months.  Happily, I’ve never had an attack as bad as that first one, maybe because I know what they are now.  And I’ve picked up some coping techniques.  I pray.  I focus on breathing slowly and deeply.  And I talk to myself.  “You’re not dying,” I tell myself.  “Oh, yeah?” myself replies, “How do you know?”

Exercise seems to help, too.  Mark described a panic attack as your body triggering its flight-or-fight response over and over again, flooding the system with adrenalin.  Working up a sweat seems to burn off some of that extra adrenalin, so whenever I start to feel myself getting twitchy, I head for the gym or for the elliptical machine that our friends Alan and Kathy have generously loaned to us for me to use.  It takes the edge off, and the firm thighs and calves are just a bonus.

I’ve also done some research (by which I mean I typed “panic attacks” into Google) and have decided to cut aspartame out of my diet.  Aspartame toxicity has been linked to panic attacks, and if anyone has absorbed enough aspartame to qualify for “toxicity”, it’s me.  It takes a few months to cleanse it out of your system, so I won’t know if it’s helping for a while.

Meanwhile, my little 10-pill prescription of Lorazepam is only about half gone.  I usually take it as a last resort when nothing else is helping.  My hope is that I’ll be able to continue to cope with the attacks on my own, or that they’ll go away altogether.  However, I’m glad to know that there are medications out there that can help people whose lives are being persistently and negatively affected by panic disorder.  Only time will tell if that will be me.  I’d appreciate your prayers.

13 responses »

  1. We should talk. I am an expert on this subject. So, so, so sorry you’re going through this. But it sounds like you’re doing all the right things to manage it. Love you.

  2. It is funny how God works…I haven’t visited your site in months (sorry!) and today I felt the need to check it….

    I have been battling Panic/Anxiety for the past 2 years. Lorazepam is my best friend on those instances. I hate taking meds, but sometimes the event is too much to deal with and I just want it over!

    Great job on cutting the caffiene! yay!!! Sounds like you have done your research and are coping the best you can. I repeatedly do the body system check when going through one. Heart – fine. Breathing – fine. Smile – symmetrical. Swallowing – fine. and repeat.

    Yoga helps too 🙂 I personally haven’t tried it, but the deep breathing and relaxation is good.

  3. I do pray for you and the panic attacks. It sounds like all the worst feelings in the world all jumbled together. Terrible. I hope you can find something that keeps them at bay.

  4. I know 2 other people, women teachers, about my age, who have also recently begun this. Last year, I started getting debilitating headaches about once a week. My doctor said it was stress, but I’m not convinced. It’s almost like a muscle clenches then won’t unclench. It starts in my neck, then my shoulders, and even my teeth are being severely worn from the clenching. I wonder if it’s age, or diet, or exercise…because I know there were way more stressful times in my life where I didn’t have symptoms. The aspartame theory is interesting. I want to learn more, because everything is so interconnected….
    I’ll pray for you, Katrina, and hate that you’re going through this. There are so many people, it seems that answers will have to follow soon! Please update as you learn more. Hugs from Kentucky!!

  5. Katrina,
    I’m thankful you have found some relief and will pray that you will find even more. I’ve never had a panic attack as bad as the big one you described, but have had many smaller ones. They can vary in symptoms too. The whole feeling of being “out of your body”, the racing heart are very scary. I found that caffeine can effect me but also am sensitive to decongestants. I was taking Claritin-D when I discovered this.
    When things were bad for a long stretch I started taking Yoga regularly. That helped A LOT!
    Hang in there, and keep us posted if you discover other remedies.
    Love you,


  6. OK, the Lord led me to visit your blog today, and I know that’s Divine appointment. I just prayed for you and will continue to do so. If you need to call someone during those panic attack moments, don’t hesitate to call me (of course you’d pay for the long distance to Maui, Hawaii 😉

    Seriously, I know how hard can that be. I have not had that, but a couple of friends had, and it’s hard.

    Thanks for sharing and reaching out. Your bloggy friends are here.

  7. I have never experienced a panic attack (praise the Lord) but did experience a nervous breakdown once (in the 9th grade, induced by a teacher), so I know how it feels to totally lose control and wonder why. BUT, I am so thankful I’ve never had the other symptoms you described. I would have called 911 for sure!!! I will keep you in my prayers, as you cross my mind frequently 🙂 BIG (((HUGS))) girl!

  8. Thank you to everyone for your words of encouragement… I really appreciate all the support!

    I’m happy to report a great improvement in my symptoms since cutting aspartame out of my diet completely. I think the exercise helps a lot, too! It’s probably too early to say for sure that aspartame is the main culprit, but we’ll see what time will tell. I’m just so thankful for every day that I don’t have an attack. God is good!

  9. I’m glad you wrote about this- Hopefully others will stumble across it and realize that they’re not alone. Panic attacks can be so scary, and many are under the mistaken impression that something obvious triggers them, or that only ‘nervous’ people have them.

    Good luck and I hope that you continue to get better!

  10. thank you for writing about this. I know it must have been hard, at least when I write about something like that I feel like I am re-living it. It sounds like you have found some answers, that’s always the hardest part- feeling like you don’t know what’s wrong with you, and feeling helpless. I have had attacks similar, but nothing as bad as you described, but I know that feeling like you want nothing else, but to make it stop, or die.
    Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad you are finding some relief. My prayers will be with you also.

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