I’m so fortunate to have many friends in the gifted/twice-exceptional community, and that they are willing to write guest posts when I am trapped under something heavy (or just overwhelmed by daily life while planning for 2020). Please welcome my friend Barry Gelston, online math instructor extraordinaire and executive director of GHF Learners.
Anxiety and Panic Attacks are some of those dirty little secrets of the gifted community that we over-thinkers keep to ourselves and have been plagued by. I can never forget the moment that my first panic attack hit me. I was a full-time graduate student at the time maintaining a 4.0, I was the graduate assistant in the program, and I had a full-time job working 35 hours/week at a school with low functioning autistic children. My plate was full and running over.
My friend and I prepared to see Cotton Club in the movie theater that night. Before going, we had dinner at his parents house who got us the good, high quality, junk food from KFC which came with several quarts of Coca-Cola. I was chasing the crunchy and greasy heaven with tall glasses of coke. It was a twenty-something’s dream of a dinner.
We got to the theater late and the only seats were near the front by the big screen. The movie built to a great scene at the end with intense jazz and then a gun fight. (I have to admit that I haven’t watched the movie in over 35 years so the details may be off.) As the movie built to a climax I could feel my heart beating out of my chest.
The intensity of the beat of music, the frightening movements on the screen, and the coca cola felt like a hard drum roll through my body. I was surprised by the feeling. I began to worry that I was having a heart attack. At this point others might have laughed it off, but not me. I went right there. I was convinced that at 23 years old, I was having a full blown heart attack. My body tightened, I became light-headed, the left sided injury to my neck tightened and sent pain from my neck to my pinky. I was covered in goosebumps. This couldn’t be good!
I dragged my frightened and soon-to-be former friend to the hospital so that I could be checked out. The end result was that I looked like I was in deep exercise to all of the machines, no heart attack: heart-rate of 145, blood pressure 190/120. The MD thought that I was on drugs.
The problem is that it didn’t stop that night. It was as if I was experiencing after-shocks from a great earthquake. When the feeling of anxiety would return, my head would go right there again. I was about to die! Reason had nothing to do with anything. It was all about fear and the downward spiral of panic.
After that I went into therapy, completed the coursework for my graduate degree, and got myself a job at Yale University working in the Neuropsych Research Unit. As part of that job, I had the responsibility for doing clinical ratings for – wait for it – patients with panic attacks! The patients sniffed me out quickly, they figured out how I could understand them as well as I did.
Here I am 35 years later and I no longer experience panic attacks. It does go away in time. I would like to share what I think helped me through the process. First of all, I found a therapist. Outside of a good early adulthood adjustment, I found that it was important to make self-care a priority. I learned to stay away from caffeine, sleep well, and develop techniques for the moments when the panic attacks would happen.
In describing that initial scenario, what sent me off the edge was that I could not accept that my heart was racing from the movie and the Coke. I was determined that I was having a heart attack. There had to be something wrong with me.
Over time I learned to reassure myself that it was “just” a panic attack, I wasn’t going to die from it, I was able to refocus my attention, and get busy doing something else. After all of these years, what remains with me has been learning to center myself and clearing my head. I use basic mindfulness techniques to calm myself and move on. I assume my technique is hardwired now.
What I want to share with those who can relate to the article is that panic attacks come and go and life goes on. I understand that it has become common knowledge in the Psych fields that panic attacks are curable.
If I were to give “non-professional” advice, it would be to look for help from a professional, use this as a chance to treat yourself better, and learn to have more control over your body and thoughts using mindfulness techniques.