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_A_470_1458438Walk through the fire, through the dust and ashes

while the building crashes…show no sign of fear (Peter Gabriel)
On August 6, 2005, my home in England was burnt down. There are days I actually wake up and forget this minor fact. Seeing my home be digested by flames – including a nearly completed manuscript inside – was not the worst part.

No — the worst part was having to try to live as normal a life as possible while trying to forget that someone set my home on fire. Sometimes I wish I could wear a big sign that says “Home burnt down – Cut me some slack.” It’s been over six years since the fire. My life has improved dramatically and I should be over this by now. And yet I’m not over it. I probably won’t be for a long time.

In various moments of my new life, things happen that trigger the memories of that fire, such as seeing news about a fire on television. Panic attacks built up many times depending on how busy the local arsonists are. I heard a Julian House homeless shelter worker in Bath, England tell me how to deal with panic attacks but it wasn’t until the last few years did I follow his advice.

Oh No, Not Again!

This is the reason why we have panic attacks. We fear that the past will repeat itself. This is a normal instinctive response, but if you let it stay too long, you get so stressed that you can get ill. Also, you can make some very strange choices. I get so panicked; I dive under the covers and won’t come out for hours.

I have these strange arguments with the air about “Haven’t I used up my portion of bad luck yet?” However, the air has yet to argue back, which really makes me feel that arguing with me is just not worth a Deity’s attention. Yup – this is the way my brain works when I panic. Frightening, isn’t it?

Panic attacks screw up my stomach so it’s hard to drink tea . Life is too short not to drink tea when I feel like drinking tea. That’s reason enough for me to work on dealing with my panic attacks. Now, I have not been diagnosed with a panic attack disorder . That needs a doctor’s help. I’ve had doctors tell me that it’s normal to have panicky moments after witnessing my home burn down, but they say I do not have panic attack disorder.

Stop, Look and Listen

If you feel panic coming on, STOP what you are doing. Even say the word “Stop,” if that helps you.

Look around. Is anything threatening you at that moment?

Sniff the air. Listen. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Is anything threatening you at that moment? If not, then concentrate on the moment. If you have someone sympathetic with you, describe the immediate surroundings to them. This should distract you enough to calm down. Also this is where learning meditation really helps. Even rubbing a piece of marble or a smooth stone or a piece of jewelry can soothe you.

Take deep breaths. If you have trouble breathing deeply, then try and sniff something that will force your body to take deep breaths, like peppermint, roses or frankinscence. Although it sounds weird, getting enough oxygen through your body will also help you calm down. When you breathe the shallow, quick breaths associated with fear, your brain goes a mile a minute and you see dangers where there aren’t any.

Other Tips

If you meditate, then your meditation ritual will help you relax. Me, I like to watch my fish swim, or pet my dogs, or even write in one of my blogs. The trick is to do something that takes your mind off of the hamster wheel of remembering your past. And if you know what scenes, smells or actions can trigger a panic attack, try to avoid them whenever possible (For example – I rarely watch international national news programs anymore).

Life does get better after a tragedy. Perhaps panic attacks are our bodies’ way of reminding us, “Could be worse!” All you need is a reminder. Try not to dwell on it. You can do it.

References

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Controlling Anxiety.” Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D. Alpha Books; 2006.

Daily Mail Online. “10 tips for coping with panic attacks.” Claire Bates. 13 August 2007; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-377876/10-tips-coping-panic-attacks.html

Author’s personal experience

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_A_470_2504384It’s too bad women’s bodies aren’t like office software, sending you reminders whenever any important even in your body’s life is going to come up. One morning when you are still a young girl, you should cough out a memo that you’re going to get your first period and what pain to expect. Then, a few decades later, you cough out another memo about normal signs of menopause and that panic attacks will likely happen. Wouldn’t this be great?

Unfortunately, our bodies do not come with an instruction manual or timely reminder about anxiety and menopause. Women think they are going crazy, or are somehow defective, which can make their panic attacks stronger and longer. Women have to take it upon themselves to learn about menopause. When panic attacks come suddenly out of the blue after a couple of skipped periods, know that you are not going insane. Now sit down, open the Ben and Jerry’s and listen up.

Identifying Anxiety

Everyone gets anxious, but not everyone suffers from anxiety. Just what is anxiety? You basically get panicked or incredibly upset for a very trivial reason. Feeling panicked can lead to painful physical symptoms such as a pounding heart, shortness of breath and chest pains. These physical symptoms just reinforce the anxiety.

According to The Menopause Book (Workman Publishing; 2009) women are three times more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. Women who suffer nerves during their periods are also more prone to suffering from anxiety during menopause.

Not-So-Happy Hormones

The ancient alchemists had a theory about the universe – “As above, so below”. This referred to anything, so logically it can refer to menopause. So you can take comfort knowing that some solar system somewhere is going through a hot flash and mood swings. Keep those images in your head whenever you feel a panic attack coming on. It may help you to laugh, which will help you to calm down.

Microscopic things can have tremendous effect on incredibly large things. Your microscopic hormones affect your whole body. Your hormones are going through a civil war at the moment, which leads to mood swings. They can aggravate your feelings of impending doom, nervousness or insecurity.

The exact cause of panic attacks is a point of some debate in medical circles. Some feel the hormones entirely control the response; other feel the organ in the brain called the amygdale is entirely responsible. Whatever! The point is that all bets are off during menopause.

Treatment

If you have a history of panic attacks, then you really shouldn’t be surprised at getting more at menopause. Check with your doctor, even if you were thought you were finished your menopause. For women that never had a history of anxiety and panic attacks before, still go to see your doctor, but know that your panic attacks are treatable.

Your doctor may want you to get a blood test in order to check for ailments that can cause anxiety, such as a malfunctioning thyroid or abnormally low blood sugar. Ask you close female relatives if they suffer from depression, anxiety or went through a difficult menopause. Your doctor may want to take this family into account before making up a treatment strategy.

Your treatment will depend a lot on what medications you are taking now and your past medical history. You might have to take medications such as anti-depressants, be asked to try breathing exercises during the attack or have a change in your hormone replacement therapy. The Menopause Book encourages regular exercise at last 5 days a week to reduce stress levels.

Resources

Wingert, Pat, et al. The Menopause Book. Workman Publishing; 2009.

Johnston, Joni E. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Controlling Anxiety. Alpha Books; 2006.