The Panic Monster

The Panic Monster

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


The Panic Monster

I picked up a can of chicken noodle soup and put it in my grocery cart. I moved up the grocery aisle and felt my heart pick up speed. That’s strange, I thought. I felt a little out of breath, like I’d jogged up the aisle.

It reminded me of that day months earlier at a rock concert. That hot day in the full-capacity crowd, I felt claustrophobic — heartbeat rising like the heat. My friend and I picked our way through the crowd trying to find a little room to breathe. My pulse escalated. My mind said there was nothing to fear, but my body didn’t listen. Soon, my heart was racing and I needed to get out of that stadium.

Embarrassed, I told my friend and we found a stairway up and a way out. We totally missed The Rolling Stones.

I couldn’t explain the anxiety I’d felt that day. It was like when I had to deliver a speech in school. Same escalating heartbeat. Same shortness of breath. Same shakiness. But there was no speech and no class. I loved rock and roll and concerts where I could disappear in the crowd, relax, and enjoy. Now this strange panic was invading my life even at a rock concert, even in a grocery store. I didn’t know why. I just wanted to keep it under control until I could pick up some fruit and get through the checkout lane.

The store was nearly empty. The one cashier moved dreadfully slow. My heart beat dreadfully fast. I felt dizzy. My chest ached. I was sweating. Was I having a heart attack? I was only twenty years old. What was happening to me? I wasn’t going to make it through the checkout line. I wheeled my grocery cart to the back of the store, abandoned it, and ducked out the exit.

In my car the symptoms began to dissipate. I felt wrung out like I’d just run a marathon. “What is wrong with me?” I cried out loud, pounding the steering wheel.

In the following months I felt panic rise in restaurants and movie theaters. When I was out with friends, I struggled to keep the panic under control. I learned a couple of drinks helped contain the panic monster that lurked beneath the surface waiting to attack. Claustrophobia was the best explanation I could come up with, but I didn’t need to be closed in to feel it.

I was embarrassed to tell anyone. How could I explain my intense anxiety in a grocery store? I searched for help. When my fiancé and I were planning our wedding, the church advertised their new counseling ministry. I made an appointment. The lady, God bless her, didn’t know how to help me except to pray. Okay, but I needed more.

When I went for my blood test to get our marriage license, I tried to explain my experiences to the doctor. “Is there something you can give me to help me stay calm enough to get through the wedding?” I asked. He gave me a prescription. On my wedding day, it was no help. I’m now convinced it was a placebo.

A few years later another doctor told me I had mitral valve prolapse syndrome — a problem with a valve in the heart that can cause the heart to start racing. I’d heard about it on the news, but no other doctor has ever detected a problem with my heart.

My husband’s job took us to a new town and I heard about counseling at the local mental health center. I went. The counselor talked with me at length about what I felt, about my childhood traumas. But the panic persisted. I constantly felt stressed.

Then one day I turned on the television and heard a man saying, “… escalating heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, shaking, sweating. It feels like you’re having a heart attack, and many people think that’s what’s happening. It feels like you’re dying, but these episodes are not harmful.”

You mean I wasn’t the only one? Astounded, I wanted to hug the TV! That TV talk show guest used the term “panic attack” and I knew immediately that’s what I’d been experiencing. It had a name!

Then I met Betty. She talked about her struggles with “anxiety disorder.” Suddenly someone I knew experienced this! We quickly became friends. Betty took prescription meds to manage her panic disorder, though she hated that she needed them.

I learned from a National Institute of Mental Health brochure (1994) that there are different kinds of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people fear public speaking, but it’s a “disorder” when it affects your life, your career — when you pass up a promotion because you can’t give a presentation, when you purposely lose so you don’t have to give the winner’s speech. I guessed mine was either social or panic disorder.

I learned it’s possible to de-sensitize to panic triggers. Agoraphobics, who can become prisoners in their homes, for example, can take baby steps: step outside for a moment. Next time, take two steps.

Experts said fighting the symptoms only makes them escalate. Don’t fight them. Let it happen. Like that’s easy! But I tried, and practiced, and began to see progress.

But I also experienced setbacks. A Bible study required participants to introduce themselves. As my turn grew closer, my heart rate escalated. I struggled to breathe. Too shaky to move, too breathless to speak, I finally excused myself and headed for the door, my knees so weak I feared I wouldn’t make it out. That setback haunted me for years and to this day reminds me the panic monster is lurking, waiting to pounce.

Today, I haven’t had a panic attack in years. My writing career has gained momentum and I’ve been asked to speak. In my past I never dreamed I’d say yes, but I have. The more I do it, the easier it becomes.

Three years ago I joined Toastmasters, a peer group that gives training and practice in public speaking, which has further helped me conquer the panic monster.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference for professional writers and speakers as a new member. After I signed up I learned everyone had to introduce themselves! Had I known before I made my travel arrangements, I might have passed on the conference. During dinner, one by one each table was called up on stage before the room of nearly one hundred professional speakers and writers. I stood in line. I gripped my new book. I walked to the microphone. And I did it! Then I returned to my seat.

As I sat there, I marveled, remembering the times my heart pounded just sitting in a restaurant and when I couldn’t remain calm enough to say my name to a group of twelve women in a Bible study. Yet I was in a group of professional speakers having dinner, feeling relaxed, and actually enjoying the conversation. Baby steps have carried me a long way. And daily I’m conquering the panic monster.

~ Dianne E. Butts ~

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