Panic in Sheep’s Clothing

I had a stunning realization a few days ago. The sort of realization I had a real hunch about the last few years of my life, but had never fully bloomed into a fully formed thought until last week.

The moment that lit the fuse was the apex of the week, I had to get my dog Luna to the vet (she was sick) but Corey was stuck in traffic. That meant getting her up the extremely steep hill to the bus, and after a block or so Luna wasn’t willing to walk the rest of the way up on her own.

The rain started to come down, the first of the day (of course, it never rains until I actually need to go outside) so I wrapped her in a towel, picked up the little 16 lb bundle of dead weight, and started running up the hill to catch the bus. Of course, this would also be the moment that the rain decided to become more of a torrential downpour, and I also was considerably sick myself. Half way up I had an asthma attack, and though I made it to the bus stop in time I was so shaky and weak that I could barely hold poor Luna up.

I’ll admit, I cried a little with resignation around how terrible the day really turned out to be, but the asthma attack in particular set an interesting series of thoughts in motion.

These attacks started happening when I was in 5th grade. Suddenly, I wasn’t able to run further than about 100 meters (sprinting) or 400 meters (jogging) without  being unable to breathe. It wasn’t that I was out of shape or anything, on the contrary, I was involved in several sports growing up. A trip to the doctor (who simply asked a handful of questions) concluded this was sports asthma (energy induced asthma), and I was given an inhaler and sent on my way.

What I thought was weird as an adolescent was that the inhaler never seemed to help. I used it religiously for a while, but as it never seemed to decrease the length or severity of these attacks I shrugged it off eventually. I continued playing sports in tiny bursts at a time, terrifying any coach who happened to push me hard enough to get me gasping for air.

Since then I’ve had this notion that maybe something else is occurring. I really wasn’t sure what, but it seems to happen more often in cold air. In a dry, warm area I’ve been able to jog on a treadmill for 5 minutes or more at a time, which is something I didn’t think I could ever do. And then there is that inhaler bit, the fact that it never seemed to help. Could it be that I don’t actually have sports asthma at all?

I was listening to The Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast last week and there is an episode with Steve Agee who talks about how his anxiety was manifesting in bizarre ways (namely, if he was in a social dining situation, he would have periods where he couldn’t seem to swallow). Anxiety can rear its ugly head in so many different ways… it made me think back to my ER trip in November when I literally felt paralyzed with (what turned out to be) anxiety.

I was diagnosed last year with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and it wasn’t until then that I really recognized how big a role anxiety has played in my life for as long as I can remember. Many of my childhood memories have an element of anxiety mixed in, and I remember having a lot of anxiety around my elementary school PE teacher when my “asthma attacks” started happening.

I remember being upset that if we were running for class, we were not allowed to stop and tie our shoes if they became untied. I often fantasized about accidentally tripping over a shoelace and breaking an arm or even my nose when I fell so we could sue the school (oh the mind of a child!). He also wouldn’t let us stop if we developed stomach cramps while running, which I did pretty much continuously.

Start with an anxious child, sprinkle in some physical pain, deny that child relief from the pain… and what I see is a perfect recipe for a panic attack.

After that, the fear becomes fear of another attack, and the cycle is self perpetuating.

One thing I do know, is that I was allowed to stop running if I had an asthma attack. Since that pain was immediately quantifiable by my teacher, I could stop running to find relief. Anything internal I had to push through. Hide your pain and feelings, 101.

Anyway, I compared this last “asthma attack” I had running Luna up the hill with my other, usual sorts of panic attacks… and the similarity in symptoms is much more clear. Shaking, loss of blood flow to the hands and feet, weakness, dizzyness, the only difference being that the muscles that contract are in my throat. Recalling that podcast about Steve Agee having panic attacks that were centered in his throat was like a bolt of lightening straight to my brain.

I feel like I’ve solved a 15 year mystery! And now that I’m much more familiar with anxiety and what it does to me, I have a fighting chance of being able to relax enough to avoid future attacks.

Is this something I could have understood as a 5th grader? I really couldn’t say. I wish there was a simple way to introduce children to the concept of mental health  though, because I’m certain I’m not the only child that could have used it.

Anxiety and panic attacks can manifest themselves in a seemingly infinite number of ways, and the two can be much more powerful than you would give them credit for. Something that can be seemingly insignificant, like anxiety, can create big road blocks in your life if it is ignored.

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6 responses to “Panic in Sheep’s Clothing

  1. Many of the weeds of our adult lives were seeded in our childhoods. Only age can bring the self-awareness and realisation that would have helped years ago. Another great post.

  2. I have to admit, I had no idea I was having panic attacks of any kind for a long time, because the symptoms weren’t anything that I would associate with panic. I knew the situations were unpleasant and I didn’t like them, but enough to pass out? Come on! Well, the first time I remember being stuck with a needle, it was a 3″ needle going under my kneecap when I was in 2nd grade. That’s probably trauma enough to have a lot to do with passing out nearly every time I have a blood draw.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      Yikes! That definitely sounds intense!

      And I’ve been realizing more and more that there is no “one way” panic attacks look. (You’d think somebody would have told me that by now!)

  3. I, too, was diagnosed with exercised induced asthma at about 13-ish. I repeatedly kept getting bad grades on my report card in gym. I complained to my mother for years that I really couldn’t breathe when I would run. Or play sports. Interestingly enough, although I wasn’t in great shape, I was athletic enough and enjoyed sports until about that time.

    And in my teens, I ended up on two inhalers and an asthma control daily pill. Once I graduated high school and moved on to college, I couldn’t afford the medication anymore, and I just stopped taking it. I wasn’t forced to run anymore. So, if it was exercise induced, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

    For the most part, it went away. Yes, my lungs would burn and my airways would start to close while running and dancing with friends. Nothing serious.

    I always thought it was really curious that it went away for a period of time. That was also the period of time that I was drinking heavily and experimenting with illicit drugs.

    Then, I got married, had a son, and all of a sudden, my asthma flared up again. Anywhere near running was enough to have me gasp. And one day, while I was having this asthma attack for seemingly no reason, I realized it. It was a panic attack.

    I was in band in school. Yeah, it doesn’t sound like much exercise, until you are dancing with a tenor sax that’s 3/4 the height that you are, strapped around your neck. (I still have neck problems, but it was worth it). Showband. And I was in the middle of 100 other members of our group, a certain sect were thin girls on the dance squad. That was the height of the asthma.

    Panic is interesting for me. It strikes without a reason. This was maybe a month or more ago – I was sitting on the sofa and for no reason, I couldn’t catch my breath. I leaned over the sofa, head down, gasping. The TV was too loud, and the lights were too bright, and the images on the TV were moving too fast. The radio played in the kitchen, and everything was this garble of noise. I took my inhaler, in fact twice the dose I should have, and it didn’t work.

    I ran upstairs and buried my head in a pillow. But the noise. The noise could be heard all the way up the stairs, under three pillows and two blankets.

    It was bad enough that any of my anxiety tactics didn’t work. Controlled breathing made it worse. I couldn’t think to be mindful of anything, and I couldn’t block out reality. It was too much.

    I wish I had a better answer for all of this, but I don’t. Interestingly enough, a fellow blogger and I were talking about breathing problems and mental health issues. It seems that treating breathing problems eases mental health symptoms. I would think it would be the other way around, but a geriatric doctor once helped me consider otherwise.

    When our brains aren’t getting enough oxygen, even over a long period of time, they start misfiring. And it causes a host of mental health symptoms. That’s why we can associate asthma and sleep apnea with mental health problems.

    Just some food for thought.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I have definitely been having periods lately where I will be just walking down the street, minding my own business, and I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest. That sort of gasping for air is something I’ve attributed to anxiety for the last few years, but it hasn’t been anywhere near where I was in school when I was practically giving others panic attacks because of the way I sounded when I was trying to breathe when one of those attacks hit me.

      I definitely believe you about the sleep apnea example, I have known a couple people with that problem and both were also having some serious issues with depression.

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