Awakening: Cause

Worry does not emp­ty tomor­row of sor­row — it emp­ties today of strength.

—Corrie ten Boom

It start­ed with a sin­gle pan­ic attack, at work, in the mid­dle of the day.

Heart rac­ing, dif­fi­cul­ty breath­ing, par­a­lyz­ing ter­ror, fear that I was about to die.

If you’ve ever had a bad trip off psilo­cybe, or mag­ic mush­rooms, the effects are very sim­i­lar. Not that I’ve ever had a good one. Half an hour into inges­tion, I start to feel nau­se­at­ed. At the back of my head there’s a creep­ing sense that some­thing is wrong. My hands start to trem­ble, my mind feels like it’s shud­der­ing. Eventually, there’s a com­plete uneasi­ness in the body, both phys­i­cal­ly and men­tal­ly. Around that time, the body reacts quick­ly to rid the stom­ach of what­ev­er is caus­ing these symp­toms, and vio­lent­ly ejects them in the form of vom­it­ing. Stems and caps come out as dark brown flecks, and you won­der how eat­ing some­thing so small thing can make you feel so ter­ri­ble.

But with a pan­ic attack, there’s no expla­na­tion. No sense of pre­ven­tion. No float­ing fun­gus in the pool of your toi­let you can point your fin­ger at and say, “I’m nev­er doing THAT again”.

It comes with­out warn­ing, with­out obvi­ous rea­son. All you want is to end the attack. To crawl into a cor­ner and hide. To tear off your stran­gling clothes. To die.

Afterward, you’re not won­der­ing what you’re going to lis­ten to on the way home, or how to get the atten­tion of that cutie in the porce­lain depart­ment, or when you’ll have time to go buy more sham­poo. All you’re think­ing about is when the next one will hap­pen. All you’re left with is a bunch of ques­tions and a sense of insta­bil­i­ty. I have my sus­pi­cions, but I’ve cho­sen not to write about them until I’m cer­tain, some­thing which I believe will come in time. There’s no sim­ple diag­no­sis, no easy answer.

Recently, sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that the word “wheeze” can acti­vate asth­ma attacks in asth­mat­ics. The mind trig­gers an asso­ci­at­ed emo­tion­al response, and the body man­i­fests the reac­tion. It’s the same after a pan­ic attack. Sometimes, peo­ple with pan­ic dis­or­der can bring on an attack just wor­ry­ing or think­ing too much about it.

Not that I have a dis­or­der. The fear of an attack isn’t detri­men­tal enough to stunt me social­ly, and does­n’t pre­vent me from func­tion­ing as what the DSM IV would con­sid­er “nor­mal”. It was only a sin­gle episode, but habit of con­stant self-eval­u­a­tion means that the threat of it hap­pen­ing again is always there. It’s in the back of my mind whether I’m at work, or play­ing games, or cook­ing din­ner. Every minute of every day becomes a strug­gle not to think about it. And when you know you feel like dying dur­ing an attack, you start to won­der whether it’s worth liv­ing at all.

People face this ques­tion when they’re diag­nosed with ter­mi­nal ill­ness­es. Told that they have only have a few years left, they live more in those num­bered days than they do in their entire lives until then.

They awak­en.

The Awakening Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Cause
  3. The Reborn Dreamer


  1. This describes my entire last week, and most of my child­hood. When I go “I’m nev­er doing that again” I most­ly mean life. I’m start­ing to step out of it, but it was pret­ty hell­ish. Usually those days I’m up to about 20% of anx­i­ety on a day to day bases and this took a lot of work to get to.

    There’s real­ly noth­ing worst then pan­ic in the world. On Thursday I came back from a movie and I was so alert and pan­icked I was con­vinced for over an hour and a half that this is the night I’m going to die in. I did­n’t. Life went on, the worst of it’s not know­ing what’s real and what’s just a fig­ment of my imag­i­na­tions.

    I wrote a note to myself in my sketch­book after­wards: you may appear to be sta­ble and strong on the out­side, but you are always one step away from a full scale pan­ic attack. Don’t for­get that, ever.

    I was think­ing about tak­ing a week off work and a sea­side vaca­tion for next month, if this goes on, I won’t be able to make it, the beach works to calm me some­times, oth­er times it makes me pan­ic. I can’t take that chance, espe­cial­ly if I go alone.

    I hate hav­ing to built my life around this.

    Not an encour­ag­ing com­ment, I know.

    At any rate, if there’s one thing like with anx­i­ety and pan­ic thought me is that this to shall pass, that even though you might feel like there’s no rea­son to go on liv­ing — that’s just a part of the pan­ic and not your real opin­ion and that once this symp­tom goes away, you’ll feel like your­self again.

  2. I’m in ther­a­py for oth­er rea­sons than episodes of pan­ic, but I’ve begun work­ing with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction which you can take as an 8‑week course through many hos­pi­tals or you can learn through the book FULL CATASTROPHE LIVING by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s been teach­ing the sys­tem, which is based on pay­ing atten­tion to the breath, for almost 20 years and it sounds like it is effec­tive for peo­ple with symp­toms sim­i­lar to the ones you describe. There’s an excel­lent exam­ple of a fire­fight­er who could­n’t go back into burn­ing build­ings or even put his face mask back on for six months after a seri­ous bout of smoke inhala­tion on the job. Two weeks of the pro­gram brought him back to a place where he could ful­ly re-engage with his work. It might be some­thing to check into, espe­cial­ly if awak­en­ing is your goal. You can get a quick overview at

  3. Lilly: It’s true that we may con­stant­ly be on the verge of a pan­ic attack, but we’re also always a sin­gle step away from death. I use to remind myself of this real­i­ty on a dai­ly basis, and found myself alien­at­ed, unat­tached. I don’t ever want to for­get, but it’s unhealthy to keep ask­ing, “Am I alright? Am I about to have an attack?”.

    The prob­lem is that although the one major pan­ic attack has passed, the resid­ual emo­tions haven’t. I’m still wait­ing it out, but in time I think you’ll be right.

    Lavaflower: Thanks for the infor­ma­tion. Right now I’m stay­ing away from all forms of caf­feine, because they seem to trig­ger mild pan­ic episodes. I’m not sure if it’s just in my mind, but it’s not worth the risk right now. If this pro­gram could reha­bil­i­tate a fire­fight­er to direct­ly face his trig­ger, then I’ll def­i­nite­ly have to con­sid­er it if my sit­u­a­tion wors­ens.

  4. I did the whole ther­a­py \ med­ica­tion \ cog­ni­tive treat­ment thing, it helped, a bit, but it did­n’t real­ly solved any­thing, I did learn some tech­niques and ways of under­stand­ing what’s real and what’s enx­i­ety and it also help to talk about it, now­days when I meet new peo­ple, I try to expain why phone calls are dif­fi­cults to me or why some­days I just dis­s­a­pear, it helps me get less stress and maybe for them to be a lit­tle more for­giv­ing about it.

    For me it’s always been there, my first child­hood mem­o­ries are relat­ed to anx­i­ety, I don’t think it would ever go away com­plet­ly, but this year, deal­ing with a lot of things and learn­ing ot take care of myself is an impor­tant step.

    Caffeine make it worst for me as well, last week I had a major pan­ic attack on thurs­day after hav­ing two cups of cof­fee. Since then I’m more or less OK it slow­ly dem­i­nished to anx­i­ety and now it’s start­ing ot fade away all­to­geth­er. It’s such hard work though and it takes so much effort to just go past an ordinery day like that.

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