Rewarding myself and reintroducing a familiar coping skill after a panic attack
There are a few different kinds of dissociative disorders and mental illnesses that have dissociative features. Due to abuse & other issues in my life, I’ve experienced dissociation for as long as I can remember. This is a quick story about a recent panic attack I had in the middle of the night. I hadn’t had one like this in years. I was home alone, and it caught me off guard. Thankfully the skills I learned in therapy helped me weather the storm and get through the episode quickly. I did not dissociate as badly as I once would have. I was happy that this wasn’t as traumatic as past episodes. Allah is merciful, and my progress is heartening. I wanted to share what happened.
My brain felt like it was going to explode at any moment. I’d almost forgotten this odd sensation. But then, how could I? It was too intense. I can’t quite explain it, but I felt like I was siding out of the back of my head. Not literally but I just felt like I didn’t have a connection to my body anymore. Simultaneously, I felt like I was floating away on a cloud of dust. My body was still in the room, taking up space; but another part of me was drifting up higher and higher. Sometimes when this happens, it’s like I’m going backward in time. I can’t connect to it, and I have trouble keeping track of the days and weeks. As the seconds ticked in my mind, I realized I didn’t really know what day it was. At first, I didn’t even notice. Because I’d been focusing on something else. My heart was racing a mile a minute and my palms were
“Blech”, I though in disgust. And, “Oh no!” “Here it comes, another panic attack.” I hadn’t had one in years and I’d been proud of myself for keeping the debilitating symptoms away. I’d been able to wean myself off my anxiety meds and focus on my other mental health conditions more intently. I remember feeling a sense of freedom at being able to ‘’forget” what a panic attack felt like. But today, those feelings rushed right back in. My mouth started to fill with what seemed like exploding pockets of dry air.“I hate this so much”, I thought to myself as I began to quickly suffocate. “I can’t breathe, I’m going to die any second!” I could see them. The little clear circles, I mean. I could hear them popping too. The popping was both far away and so close in both ears. “I know it’s not real, so why can’t I shut off my brain and make it stop?!” This is the worst!”
I willed myself to breathe slowly and intentionally as my trauma therapist had taught me. At first, it didn’t work, and the bubbles only choked me even more. I panicked, thinking I was about to have a heart attack or a stroke. I felt a sudden explosion of both fear and intense sadness at the thought that I had been right; that I would indeed die alone. No one was in my suite and would be able to get to me in time to save me if I stopped breathing from this attack. That made me feel much worse.
My brain continued to slowly fall apart, which only alarmed me more. It was such a vicious cycle. The more I panicked, the more dissociated and disconnected from my surroundings I became. Then I remembered something I learned in a day program intended to help with dissociation and anxiety. It was an anchoring technique. I stared at a big calendar with the current date which showed the day, month and year. I could also see that I had nothing planned for that day and for some reason the blank page helped calm my breathing. Staring at the numbers on the calendar bright my mind back into focus. I remembered where I was, and my brain felt like it wanted to realign itself with the ‘here and now’. My panic attack slowly subsided. I counted to ten and then got up to take a shower.
Afterward, I felt much better. I was so happy that I avoided a major catastrophe. I wanted to cry happy tears, but then I remembered I had a box of ice cream sandwiches in my freezer. I chuckled to myself as I walked into the kitchen. In my best Oprah impression, I told myself, “You get an ice cream sandwich…” I like rewarding myself in corny ways when I help myself with my mental health challenges. It makes all of this seem somehow less painful. At least, in the moment.