MEMBERS ONLY: When Panic Attacks

by Ben Cohen 

This is a difficult topic for me to write about for various reasons, the primary being my pride and self image — both of which have changed as a result of what I am about to discuss. As a person who has always been largely in control of their emotions and anxiety, experiencing a panic attack was not something I ever expected to have to handle.

Over the Christmas period, I was dealing with a considerable amount of stress, in part due to my wife being heavily pregnant, the nonstop workload that comes with running a daily news site, and starting the process of building a new house (word of friendly advice, while there are cost and design advantages to building a house from scratch, if you don’t have to, don’t). I also suffer from fibromyalgia, a pain condition that flares up badly during cold weather and can be seriously exacerbated by stress.

 Over Christmas, a deadly combination of all of the above seemed to hit me all at once — the weather was damp and freezing causing a severe fibromyalgia flare up that went on for over a week, traffic on the Banter had slumped creating anxiety over the future of the company, and my wife had been experiencing considerable mood shifts due to pregnancy. I was feeling extremely run down and anxious about the future, and was unable to do the things that would normally make me feel better — going outside, exercising, or taking a day off work.

The worse my fibromyalgia got, the harder sleeping became, and I struggled to get more than a couple of hours of sleep at a time — none of it the deep, restful sleep you need to function as a normal human being. Fibromyalgia effects serotonin levels in the brain and can have disastrous effects on your sleep cycle, which then drastically alters your mood. In the week leading up to Christmas, I was tired, irritable, and having increasingly bizarre thoughts. I visited the botanical garden in DC to try and replicate being outdoors and in nature, and remember feeling outside of my body, as if reality were not real. The feeling made me extremely anxious, which in turn increased thoughts that were making me feel anxious — a vicious cycle that I struggled to contain.

When I got home, I began looking up more in depth studies on fibromyalgia, and to my great relief found that many other people experienced similar anxieties, or ‘racing thoughts’ as they are commonly described in fibro sufferer circles. While this helped me confirm that I was not going insane or having a psychotic episode, it didn’t stop any of the symptoms and after a short while I managed to convince myself that perhaps I was going insane and needed immediate medical attention. Having experienced bad fibromyalgia before, it had never been this pronounced, and never made me question my own sanity.

On Christmas eve, I sat down with my extended family to eat dinner and felt completely out of sorts. I did not want to take part in the jolly conversation (which is unlike me as anyone close to me can attest to), and instead tried to focus on the extreme battle raging inside my head and my rapidly escalating heart rate.

What the fuck was going on?

After a few minutes, I excused myself from the table saying I was feeling unwell, and went into the adjacent room and lay down. From the couch I was lying on, I looked up at the curtains and began trying to follow the embroidered patterns to keep myself distracted. It did not work, and I started to feel my chest tightening and breathing increasingly difficult. This did not feel like fibromyalgia, and I began panicking even more. Was I having a heart attack? Was this the end of my existence on earth, aged 36 on a sofa at my wife’s family’s home on Christmas bloody Eve? This was not how I wanted to go out, particularly with a baby on the way in only a few weeks time.

I decided to try some breathing techniques to see if I really was having a heart attack. I determined that if after 10 deep breaths I wasn’t feeling any better, then perhaps it was time to call for an ambulance. I steadied myself and began to breathe, and after 10 deep inhalations the tightening had decreased. Ok, I’m not having a heart attack, I thought. But something was still wrong and I had no idea what.

My wife came in to ask me how I was doing, and she immediately noticed that I was struggling.

“I’m not doing ok my love,” I said. “My chest is tightening and I’m feeling quite dizzy.”

My wife sat next to me and asked me my other symptoms. I told her I was experiencing racing thoughts and a general feeling of anxiety.

“Ok, you are having a panic attack,” she said calmly, knowing exactly what the problem was given she had experienced them herself for a time.

“Just relax and I’ll do some breathing with you.”

She held my hand and stroked my forehead as we went through some deep breathing, and after a few minutes I was starting to feel considerably better. Half an hour later and the tightness in my chest had disappeared and I was no longer anxious. Relieved, but incredibly exhausted, I fell asleep a short while later determined to get to the bottom of what had just happened to me. Feeling like you are dying is no fun, and I did not ever want to go through that again. Thankfully my wife had saved the day, and I’m not sure what would have happened had she not calmly sat with me and helped me relax.

The next day, I set about making changes in my daily routine that would prevent this from ever happening again. I decided to stop drinking coffee. I looked into supplements that would help balance serotonin levels during a fibromyalgia flare up (5 Htp seemed to be the best solution for me), dietary changes that would help facilitate deep sleep (more vegetables and foods with magnesium), and routines that would help relieve stress. I started back meditating on a daily basis, deep stretching, and turning out lights well before I went to sleep. Over the next few weeks, I felt my body come back into alignment and the symptoms almost completely went away. The memory, though, of feeling like I was about to die has not gone away.

I have been left with a deep appreciation of just how fragile mental health is, how terrible it can be for people who live with it daily, and what it feels like to be completely helpless. Those are feelings I was not familiar with, and having gone through a panic attack, I have been humbled by it significantly. Anxiety and panic disorders are a chronic problem in our society, a problem that is masked by drugs, alcohol and other vices that do little to alleviate the cause. I have realized that I am not a machine, that I am susceptible to stress and environmental factors like anyone else. While I am still good in a crisis, too many crises are not good for me and I am learning (slowly) to not overthink the challenges I face, particularly when it comes to running a media company.

I feel pretty good right now, but I know that anxiety can come back if I don’t pay proper attention to myself. It has taken discipline and a lot of hard work to come back from the attack I had over Christmas, but the a series of small decisions added together have made all the difference in the world. If you suffer from anxiety or have had panic attacks too, I genuinely feel for you. But it can be prevented, so don’t lose hope and start making those small changes now.