My writing tends to dramatize fear, with characters struggling to suppress it or else giving in to it. Sometimes I write about anxiety and panic attacks, a topic I know well because I suffered them twenty-five years ago when my fifteen-year-old son, Matthew, died from a rare bone cancer.
I describe these attacks in FIREFLIES. From the symptoms I experienced, I didn’t know which was going to kill me first, a heart attack or a stroke, but in the end, anxiety and panic attacks were the culprits.
They rank with depression as major problems for many people. When I speak to grief groups, I often discuss panic attacks because the majority of the audience suffers from them.
Perhaps you suffer from anxiety attacks and don’t know it. Or perhaps you know that you suffer from them but don’t understand the physical mechanism that causes them. In any case, you might find the following comments helpful.
The physical cause of anxiety disorder is an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. The ultimate cause is psychological, of course, but the result is the same: some sort of powerful stress affects our breathing. Unaware of what we’re doing, we hold our breath or else hyperventilate or perhaps take only quick small breaths in long sentences. This affects the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide circulating through our bodies. Our bodies sense that something is “off.” Our heart rate increases, causing us to want more oxygen, but our breathing is already not the way it should be, and pretty soon we’re breathing even faster until a reinforcing cycle of rapid heartbeat and rapid breathing is established.
At that point, our bodies are so confused that an adrenaline dump occurs, and we feel we’re in a fight-or-flight situation, even though there isn’t an emergency. As the cycle worsens, our hands and feet turn numb, and often the area around our mouths. Our eyes dilate, causing spatial disorientation, as if everything is far away. Muscles constrict in our chest, as if we’re having a heart attack, while simultaneously we feel dizzy, as if we’re having a stroke. In this ultimate stage, called a panic attack, the only way to stop the cycle occurs when we nearly collapse and our bodies force us to rest.
There’s a helpful book called THE ANXIETY DISEASE, which explains all this in detail. Concentrating on how we breathe can help reduce the onslaught of symptoms. But the true help comes when we realize what is causing the stress and we work to deal with it. Not so easy, but self-knowledge never is. Only when I accepted my son’s death instead of fighting its reality did my symptoms lessen. Again, not so easy.