Was it a panic attack?

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.ย 

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7 thoughts on “Was it a panic attack?

  1. I like your point about panic attacks waiting for no one! Very true. I have had maybe four of them in my life — three recently, all while driving. I’ve never had anxiety about driving and I think my anxiety is worsening in the car because I’m driving to places I don’t want to go (work…) It seems to be about feeling a lack of control for me, and feeling (whether or not it is true) that I don’t have choices in whatever is going on in my life. The best advice I’ve read is to “ride it out” when you feel a panic attack coming on. Just let it happen, even better if you can get to a safe and private place! I’ve had a few breakdowns in grocery store parking lots surrounded by people. Really they weren’t so bad and after 15 minutes or so I felt good to go and was drained and yawning (but more relaxed) for the rest of the drive. I’m glad you’ve only had one (possible) panic attack yourself! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. You make an excellent point about the underlying sense that you have no control over your situation. That I know is a big part of it. Lately, with money worries, I’ll feel on the verge of panic while driving, but taking deep breaths and offering a quick prayer for help has gotten me through it. I’m not a great driver (slightly below average on a good day), and the behavior of more aggressive drivers around me makes driving more stressful than it already is.
      Thank you for the helpful and caring response! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. First off I just wanted to say…I am by no means an expert. But, yes. To me this sounds very much like a panic attack. I myself struggle with how to deal with them in day to day situations when all you want to do is run.

    BREATH. Slow deep breath in, and let it out slowly. Do it it a few times. Find something to center yourself on. Distract yourself from what your mind is making you feel. It sounds so simple and its not. But remember it will end. You WILL be ok.

    On Effexor XR. I myself did not have a good experience with it overall. At first it worked well helping with my anxiety. It does take a few weeks or longer to really kick in tho. I personally have had a battle with many meds and I seem to build a quick tolerance to most and causes increases in dosages. In the end I was on a very high dose of Effexor when it just didnt work for me anymore. In my case getting off the medication was the worst with the side effects. My only words of warning is be careful. If YOU feel the medication is making you feel worse, say something. It may not be the right med for you. Don’t be afraid to speak up!

    Keep your head up ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Withdrawing from Lexapro was probably the worst part about taking it, too. I only took Effexor for a little over two weeks, and I was told by a nurse that, since I hadn’t taken it for very long, I could just quit cold-turkey. So, I did. At the time, I knew nothing about withdrawal symptoms, but that was the worst first trimester I’ve ever gone through.
      It just hit me, too, that I failed to mention this all happened back in 2006. I haven’t had a panic attack since then, though anxiety is still something I struggle with. I don’t think my stress is any worse than what most people deal with, but I let it affect me more than some.
      I withdrew from Lexapro (which I took the longest–two and a half years) back in December, 2008, and I don’t want to try anything else, so I’m looking at other ways of dealing with anxiety.
      Thank you for the encouragement and for the caring comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

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      1. You are so welcome sweetie. I personally am in the middle of a pretty bad anxiety period myself. Been on Lexapro for years but, its not working for me anymore.

        I wish I could offer you wise words of how to deal without the medications but I’ve not found it myself.

        But don’t by any means down play how you feel. My mind tells me that too, my life/stresses arn’t any worse than anyone else. Anxiety is a silent monster that always lingers with us. Waiting to strike when we least expect it. It creeps in…and takes over.

        Hang in there. ๐Ÿ™‚

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