It happened at Costco. Maybe it was the crazy-bright lights hanging from the ceiling. Maybe my social battery had drained prematurely from all the stops at sample tables so my kids could investigate the offerings and I could pretend to be interested in maybe buying whatever was being sampled.
Or maybe it was because I’d recently started taking Effexor XR. I can’t say that for certain. Considering this was the first time I’d ever had a panic attack (though, at the time, I didn’t know what a panic attack even was), and considering it happened during the slightly more than two weeks that I took Effexor, it does make me wonder if maybe the drug had something to do with it.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a worrier. Apparently, there’s a disorder for that: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. So, do I tell people that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
No. I tell them I’m a worrier. That one word says pretty much all that needs to be said. Plus, I’m less likely to hear the words, “So, what are you taking for that?”
The answer would be “nothing”–meaning nothing with an Rx number.
But what does one take to deal with panic attacks? Generally, if a doctor attributes “panic disorder” to a patient, treatment involves medication or psychotherapy–or both. Many who’ve taken psychotropic medications know that the first prescription may not do for them what it has done for others. But if a medication is found that helps, the patient won’t necessarily have to take it indefinitely.
Brain chemistry can be changed. That can be taken either as a message of hope or as a word of caution, depending on your perspective.
The disorders most commonly associated with panic attacks are Panic Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The medication used most frequently to deal with the anxiety underlying the attacks are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), though, in my case, the first medication was actually an SNRI (selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor). Essentially, it targeted a different neurotransmitter, and, because of this, it was supposed to help alleviate what my counselor (during the few months I had one) called my “social anxiety.” I don’t know where he got that idea. At the time, I suspected it gave him another box to check.
I’m an introvert. And sometimes, I crave solitude even more than I usually do. I’ve lived long enough, though, and I’ve made a fool of myself often enough, that I don’t really lose sleep over whether or not I’ll do it again.
Other things are far more worrisome to me.
Some of those same worries kept me on edge on the day of that one and only panic attack. I was at Costco with my kids, spending a giftcard that my parents (living over 1800 miles away) had sent for my birthday. I remember standing at the check-out counter with my kids, thinking, “How did I just blow a $50 giftcard on art supplies and snacks?” So, that probably didn’t help.
But the anxiety kept building and building as I distractedly went through the motions involved with paying for the goods and heading out the door with my kids. Then, as the cart rattled across the parking lot to our gold Saturn, I opened the back door, let the kids in, shut the door, opened the trunk, stowed most of the groceries in there, grabbed the gallon of milk and a box of crackers and, opening my own door, slipped into my seat, put the milk and crackers on the front passenger seat, pulled the door shut almost frantically and sat there in my seat, gripping the steering wheel and shaking. I tried deep breaths, inhaling through the nose, exhaling through the mouth, while my heart pounded and I wondered why I felt as though I were going crazy right there, right then, with my kids in the back.
And I still had to get us all home safely. And maybe it was that thought that opened the floodgates. Because I cried. I cried so hard I shook, still gripping the wheel and feeling as though I could cry forever, while my kids, for the first time since entering the car, were silent.
A few minutes of this, and the storm passed. I grabbed the gallon of milk, opened it, and chugged about a pint. Then I tore open the box of crackers, grabbed a handful of them for myself and passed the box back. At some point, I buckled the kids into their carseats, and we headed home.
Before I started Effexor, there had been plenty of times when I felt the need for a good cry. I think that’s pretty normal. But I’d always been able to shove that impulse to the back of the line when I had more pressing matters to attend to.
Panic attacks wait for no one. They hit, and you have a small window of time in which to get to a safe place where you can fall apart and try to put yourself back together again without attracting as much attention, and without putting anyone in danger (kids in a moving car, for example).
So, here’s a question for anyone who’s read this far: Have you experienced a panic attack, and, if so, what has helped you to deal with them or to prevent them?
I’d also be interested to know if any of you only had panic attacks while they were taking psychotropic medications. As I said before, I don’t know for certain that I can blame Effexor XR for the panic attack, but I do wonder about that.
Still, if you’ve found that a particular medication helped you to avoid panic attacks, I’d love to hear about it. Ultimately, I’m a big fan of whatever works to help you to heal and to be a blessing to others.
Update: I took Effexor XR back in 2006. Nowadays, when I feel an anxiety/panic attack coming on, I’ll deep-breathe my way through it and pray for help while I look for a safe place to park. More than once, I’ve made it to my workplace and was able to take a few minutes to fall apart in the car and then put myself back together before I had to walk in to start my shift. I’ve noticed that the attacks are more frequent when my mind and body have been under unusual stress. As I’m writing this update on Friday, June 10th of 2016, I haven’t had a panic attack in about three months.