I have had issues with anxiety and panic attacks at various times of my life. It either comes with my bipolar disorder at times, or is a separate mental health issue. My panic attacks can be brought on by what may seem like nothing, or at least seemingly small triggers. And panic attacks can easily breed more frequent attacks. Scientists believe this may be part of the “kindling effect”. The kindling effect (originally applied to epilepsy, but now also applied to bipolar disorder, addictions, and even other mental health issues) is where with each episode of the illness, later episodes become more likely and more severe. It can sometimes be difficult to finally break the cycle of kindling.
In this post, I’d like to focus on a few examples of panic attacks I’ve had from seemingly small triggers (or ones that came out of nowhere), instead of ones brought on by obvious frightening or severely stressful events.
Once during a particularly rough three-year period of major anxiety, I found myself isolating in my home with mild agoraphobia. The prospect of going out scared me. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on why being out scared me so much, other than experiences being out and having numerous panic attacks. I also developed a bit of a performance anxiety. If something was not perfect, I would become very distressed.
My husband loves to go to the movies and concerts, but during the three-year period I mentioned I was quite reluctant to go. When forced, something would inevitably bring on a panic attack. Being in the movie theater in the dark with so many people I felt I was trapped. That feeling of entrapment brought on panic. I would get panic symptoms and tell my husband I couldn’t stay. I’d run from the theater shortly into the movie, and hide outside, in my car, or in the theater bathroom. Usually my husband also left early to find me. My panic unfortunately ruined his time, too.
I remember preparing to go to a concert, I dressed up and put on high-heeled shoes. Climbing the steps to the balcony, my shoes made a loud noise. A woman criticized the loudness setting off wildly racing thoughts in my head. During the entire first part of the concert I was panicking just thinking about the shoes. I didn’t even hear the music. My husband could clearly see the distress building on my face. I struggled to wait until the first movement ended, then told my husband we had to leave.
For at least a month, I could not go to the grocery store without hyperventilating and feeling like I would faint. On more than a couple of occasions I had to leave my semi-full cart and run from the store. Sometimes I’d cool off outside or in my car and then return to finish shopping. Other times I just went home after a cool off in the car, leaving my cart abandoned.
I remember promising my dad I would visit him. He lives 35 mins from my house. I would start driving and then feel a great fear that I would crash by passing out or losing control. Again, I had to stop for a bit, but then go home. I’d call my dad when I got home and say I couldn’t make it. Really he didn’t fully understand. Another time I made it to his house, and only five minutes after arrival had to leave and go home.
Once I signed up for an Ichibana flower arranging class at the adult school. I arrived and the instructor said I brought the wrong size vase. That fact and the loudness of the air conditioning also terrorized me. Severely upset thoughts raced through my head. Then she called us to stand up and listen to her in a group. I could not even hear or understand what she was talking about because of racing thoughts and an inability to concentrate. Sweat beads were dripping off my forehead. My teeth were clenching. I was panicking. The moment she let us sit, I wrote a check for the flowers and told her I was leaving. She didn’t understand and was pressuring me to stay. That made me panic even more. So I grabbed my pocketbook and literally ran to the nearest exit. She was yelling after me saying “Why don’t you take the flowers?”, but I was not to be stopped. When I exited the building I didn’t know where I was. I was disoriented. It took me five minutes to find my car. I went home crying.
I have several other stories like above. Many of my panic attacks also included feeling like I would die by heart attack, or just keel over. Many that were even worse also brought on screaming at the top of my lungs in horror. Luckily my psychologist has taught me some coping skills that do help a bit. I try to practice them even before putting myself into a potentially panic attack inducing situation. Some of these coping skills are similar to the ones I listed in my post about depersonalization and derealization. If interested, visit that post here. My general practitioner also recommended breathing into a paper bag or concentrating on my breath to control hyperventilation.
Have you ever had a serious panic attack from a seemingly minor trigger, or no apparent trigger at all?