I Once Was Lost But Now Am Found...?
June 18, 2011 6:55 PM   Subscribe

Simple, calm question for folks who have had severe panic attacks. Nothing stressful within. Simply: is it possible to feel like you felt before they ever happened?

Yes, I've read everything on Meta and the internet at large about anxiety. I have extensively researched this topic. I just need more.

If you're super sensitive about anxiety, this might be bad for you to read. I don't want to stress you out by reminding you about stuff. I'm okay, really...I'm just curious. Consider this your warning.

I had my first panic attack about 7 years ago, completely out of the blue. I eventually "got over it" (years later). It changed my life, ruined me. All that stuff. I won't go into details. You know how it feels...so do I. I almost felt better a year ago. Maybe two months ago I had another super serious panic attack, because of stress at work and my stupid efforts to try to deal with the stress. The last two months have been an exercise in, well, everything. Yes, I'm dealing. Meditation, medication, all of the standard solutions. I'm working on it. I don't need advice about that part. I am reading some very good books.

LONG STORY SHORT: Have YOU ever been able to feel like you felt before you ever had a panic attack? Does it ever get back to how you were years ago? Can you feel sane again?

It's a loaded question, because it's very much a "how do you turn back time" sort of thing. But can I ever feel like I did before I had my first panic attack? Nowadays, even if I'm calm, I still measure my life and everything in it as to how likely it is to set me off about another panic attack. It's Hell. It is Hell. I am trying to change my situation, but aside from that...assuming I can change my situation....if I do, when I do, will I feel better? Like really honestly and truly better?

If it matters at all, I am a serious Christian (Lutheran).

You are not my doctor or my therapist, but please do not bother suggesting I see a doctor or therapist. Been there, done that. I've been on a half dozen medications, I've faded out for years on them. Hate medications. I need to be clean and pure. Thank you, really, thank you.
posted by carlh to Society & Culture (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've been dealing with panic attacks and severe anxiety in various forms for about 15 years. I'm no longer taking medication for anxiety and I do go weeks and months feeling "normal". I still occasionally have panic attacks and sometimes it'll get bad again for a day or a week, but I find that the between times can be pretty anxiety-free. I'm not exactly sure how I do it, but I've basically been able to trick myself into forgetting about how that anxious state feels unless I'm actually feeling it. I don't know what will work for you, but I believe it is possible for you to get to a place where you're not thinking about suppressing panic all the time.
posted by yogurtisgenocide at 7:04 PM on June 18, 2011

I don't think you can ever "un-know" the experience of panic. You've had it, you know what it feels like, and you can remember that experience and (potentially) worry about it happening again. The psychologist Liddell once described anxiety as "the shadow of intelligence." A human's ability to think about the future and all of the possible threats that await there gives rise to the experience of anxiety.

That is not to say you cannot move forward. You will always carry the knowledge, but you can change the experience from this point forward. I am treading carefully here because I have not had panic attacks myself, but I have treated (with CBT) patients who have panic disorder. After finishing successful treatment (and CBT is extremely successful for panic disorder), one patient said to me, "At this point I could still think myself into having a panic attack, but I don't want to have a panic attack so I just don't think that way."

Of course CBT involves much more than deliberately changing your thinking (in fact, in the case of panic the changes in thought may be a secondary result, following from the exposure exercises, but that's really neither here nor there), but the point is it is entirely possible to change your relationship and reaction to the thoughts/physical feelings related to panic such that you feel confident again.

You do not have to live your life avoiding things that might "set you off" or feeling like you've lost control. I wish you the best of luck in trying to find a solution that works for you, and in maintaining hope. Good luck.
posted by Bebo at 7:08 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Xanax works for me. If I take one Xanax, I do not have a panic attack even if I get anxious. Because of this, I feel the way I felt "before." I always carry Xanax with me and know that if my anxiety exceeds a certain level, I can take one. Therefore, I can be reasonably certain that I will never have another panic attack. This knowledge has decreased my overall level of anxiety to the point that it has become extremely rare for me to experience the kind of out-of-control anxious stress that used to be my every day.

I do continue to avoid certain situations which I know to trigger my anxiety, but not absolutely, and not so much that I feel trapped by my anxiety. For example, I don't like parties, but I will go from time to time.
posted by prefpara at 7:18 PM on June 18, 2011

I've had an anxiety disorder since childhood. It has gotten remarkably better since I went off gluten after being diagnosed with Celiac disease. (Standard caveat: I do not mean to imply that you or anyone else has a problem with gluten; I'm simply framing my experience.) After going gluten-free, I had several of the worst panic attacks of my life, but then my anxiety simply... lifted. I feel now in a way that I honestly never believed I could, even having tried many years of medication and therapy. Now, when I feel anxiety, even at a much lower level, I know that I've ingested gluten somehow.

Having had anxiety for so long, I don't know that I could feel like I did before. I don't even remember before. But I know that now I feel like anxiety doesn't rule my life. I've been able to do things, like teach workshops, that were out of the question before.

I've got my fingers crossed for you.
posted by sugarfish at 7:38 PM on June 18, 2011


1. CBT + Focusing + a great book called "Panic Attacks Workbook" by Carbonell
2. Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition, calories, calories, calories (protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins)
3. http://www.buteykocenterusa.com/
4. Manage your environmental stressors
5. If you have the time/insurance/money see a doctor who practices "functional medicine"
6. Time

Everybody is different. I think the key point is that panic attacks are as much physical as mental. I believe that they are 70% physical and 30% mental, but that's just my experience. Adrenals, carbon dioxide sensitivity, etc., etc.

There can be a point again where you feel... solid. Stable. Deeply ok.

Anxious sometimes, sure--but it doesn't cut to the bone; it feels completely different. Everything just feels like it's in a different place, like a panic attack would be impossible.

Research hyperventilation and panic attacks. Research eating plenty of protein and carbs (serotonin) for mood and anxiety. Research so-called adrenal fatigue.

Again, everyone is different. But you can treat this like a solvable puzzle. (And if your doctor says you're healthy, well, been there. You'll need to seek answers elsewhere and try not to be too angry with your short-sighted doc. Same with a short-sighted therapist. Ugh.) It's not a character defect or a moral failing. It's a puzzle that involves your physical body and your mind/emotions. Don't ignore either one.
posted by zeek321 at 7:41 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this is helpful to you because my anxiety was never panic attacks as they are described (heart beating terribly fast, fear of fainting) but more than once in my life, I have develop agoraphobia/social anxiety, where leaving the house was incredibly difficult, impossible without trusted companionship, where visiting a doctor in order to get help was something I had to build up to for 3 months.

Now? I have up and down days (associated with my marriage break up) and social events where I am uncomfortable (all attention drawn to me as new member of a club), but it's like I am a different person, and remembering the fear and the impossibility of those times is like remembering reading someone else's book. It's certainly a possibility that it could happen again, particularly if I don't take care to think in ways that are helpful, but it's somewhat remote. I can behave within the range of normal human experiences. I can overcome anxiety, on a day to day basis. Most days it's only something I think about in a preventative sense (mindfulness, exercise, sunshine).

Currently I am drug free, and happy with that, though I have used a range of SSRIs over the last 15 years. I'm therapist free, though I have seen a number of professional over the last 15 years.

I can't say why I'm in this good space, and many others who have done as much work, more even are not, but it has been possible for me, and I hope for you too. It is possible that someone who has dealt with personal mental illness from the age of 14 can reach a time and a place where it's about as bothersome as an allergy to olives, which is to say, not much - just taking a little preventative action. I do feel sane. I hope this gives you hope.
posted by b33j at 7:46 PM on June 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes. I have found that many things helped but one of the best was experiencing things that used to make me panic & now do not. I think everyone is different - combinations of things like medication, meditation, diet, therapy, exercise help people - some will help you lots, some not at all. But to answer your question, yes, absolutely. Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 9:05 PM on June 18, 2011

I don't think you go back to who you were before the attacks. I don't see how it's possible. Even if I never have another attack again--even if there is not a shadow of a fear darkening any remaining second of my life--I am a different person now. But then, you know, I would've been a different person anyway, just different in another direction, because the thing about panic disorder is, it seems to take a while to really get rid of, to go into remission. Time changes you. Everything changes you, and you can't look back upon some golden age.

But who you were before the attacks isn't the only definition of sanity, and what's interesting is building your sanity back after all this. What's interesting is the kind of person you can become, having had your life ruined. What can you learn about this? What can you learn about the way you are, right now, constantly monitoring yourself for a threat that, I promise you, simply will not come to pass?

I have reached a point in my life that, at the heights of my panic disorder 15 or so years ago, I just didn't see happening. I honestly thought life was over. Either physical life was over--that pounding in my chest really was going to be a heart attack one day--or mental life was over--and I'd just sort of sink into madness, and not the cool romantic gothic kind either, but the kind where you sit fidgeting and muttering to yourself while roiling in your own wastes. Yeah, neither of those things happened, as utterly convincing as the images were. I also never accidentally vomited in front of a large group of people, never passed out, never died in a car crash, never got botulism from eating canned food...and after a while, after the panic attacks went away, I had to start restructuring my life because, you know, after you don't have these big dramatic terrifying events happen after a while, and after the fear of them becomes less acute...something's got to come in to fill their place. So instead of being a homeless crazy person, I am supporting a household of happy children with a job so demanding that by all rights I should be banging down the psych ward's door to get in. And I'm surviving it somehow, which astonishes me. Half a Klonopin here, some breathing exercises there...and I'm surviving. And doing frighteningly well at it. I have my moments. I would like to get in and see someone, for some kind of psychological tune-up, because some parts of the process are just easier with professional help. But still. Living, and in a way not totally defined by some stupid miswiring of the amygdala or whatever it turns out to be.

You will, in fact, feel better. You will be happy again. You will go first minutes, then hours, then days, weeks, and months between twinges of panic anxiety. Life will not be stress-free. But you will find yourself able to navigate that stress, and there will be some forms of it you find yourself thriving on. You will not be your old self, but you weren't going to be your old self anyway. You'll be your new self, and your new self will, frankly, be more interesting than the old, because it has seen more, done more, understood more about itself. And when you find yourself with free time on your hands--because what's going to amaze you is how much time anxiety takes, how much time you spent thinking over whatever it is that bothers you, your heart or throat or whatever--when you find yourself with free time, you're going to take on some of your old interests, and find some new ones, and they're going to help you rebuild yourself. At some point you're going to say to yourself about an activity, "I haven't done this in forever, how did I ever let ridiculous symptoms stop me from doing this?" and then you're going to get back to enjoying it.

It is really good to be on the other side of the disorder. Even if it scars you, even if it changes everything. It's good to be on the other side.
posted by mittens at 9:37 PM on June 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another plug for CBT. It's designed to help you gain control over the thoughts and sensations that contribute to panic attacks. You say you are working on this; If you're in therapy, you should absolutely bring this up to your therapist. You can work on feeling more in control and I know it can get better.
posted by goggie at 6:37 AM on June 19, 2011

Yes. I have occasional panic attacks. I carry Xanax and rarely use it, though will occasionally use it ahead of time when I know I will be in a terribly stressful situation. I carry a washcloth in a ziplock bag. A cold, wet washcloth on my face will really help stop a panic attack. It's physiological; a holdover called the mammalian dive reflex, and it's pretty effective.

I seem to have inherited the genes for anxiety, depression and volatile moods from my Mom's family. It's part of who I am like having hazel eyes. It's part of who I am, not the only part.
posted by theora55 at 1:03 PM on June 19, 2011

I will say that for me the answer is yes and no. Yes, in that it's not something I think about every day and hasn't been for years. No, because on occasion I do feel the darkening edges around the periphery (maybe a few times a year). The difference is that now I have techniques to deal...even to welcome this feeling, acknowledge it and remind it and myself that it's time has passed and it has only as much power over me as I grant it.

Years ago, had you told me that I could lay down and actually focus on my anxiety in an objective observational way instead of spending as much time as possible negotiating and distracting, I would have thought this to be absolutely impossible.
posted by screamingnotlaughing at 8:48 AM on June 20, 2011

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