Both partners and several friends have expressed some concern of late over the pattern of anxiety and panic that has emerged after starting treatment for the same. To that end, I scheduled a phone session with my doctor to discuss that, and I think it’d be good to get down in words some of the results of the call.
All of our concerns basically boil down to some variation of “I can’t tell if you’re getting better or worse”. On my end, in particular, it was worry that the benzo that I’m taking is “covering” or “hiding” anxiety that I would normally be able to cope with until it reaches the point that it turns into a panic attack. That’s because, over all, I’ve been feeling much better in terms of anxiety, and not as much in terms of panic. I was worried that I was missing a chance to head-off a panic attack through other coping mechanisms. This isn’t helped by the fact that I really worry about tolerance and addiction with benzodiazepines (though my doctor assures me that I’m on fairly low doses because I’m apparently ridiculously sensitive).
The pattern of late (the last two to three weeks) has been that I’ll feel pretty okay for most of the day, but sometime in the late afternoon or evening, I’ll be overcome by a rush of dissociation/depersonalization/derealization that feels like I’m being reduced to a tiny part of my brain while I lose control of the rest of my mind and it goes into some null-space. I usually have to lie down, and I usually have to close my eyes and cover my ears because sights and sounds get too confusing and overwhelming. I also lose track of time (I usually spend about an hour and a half to two hours out and sort of unresponsive, but subjective time usually runs about 10-15 minutes), and can’t respond coherently speaking or writing. This happens about three to four times a week, and will very rarely be a series of rolling panic attacks with half hour breaks between them.
The difference, as I’ve noticed and as my doctor explicitly pointed out, is that anxiety is now no longer such a big factor in my life. Panic of this type has been going on for months, now, but the amount of anxiety also in my life has historically been high. Very high.
Panic and anxiety are, of course, very strongly correlated. The original response was to notice, say, a tiger in the bushes, have a psychological response (anxiety), followed by a somatic response (panic; adrenaline amplifying the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system) so that one can fight or flee.
Does it feel good to explain? To boil this down to scientific terms and say hey, this is all a vestige of evolution?
Generalized anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is having that psychological response all the time about things that don’t necessarily warrant anxiety, or having out-of-proportion anxiety about the things that do. I’ve lived with that all my life - literally: my mom tells a story that, when they first moved my crib into her hospital room after I was born, neither of us slept all night, instead just warily eying each other, anxious and nervous.
Panic attacks are relatively recent for me, starting up sometime in my late teens and early twenties as any sort of regular occurrence, and those involve having that same somatic response, often - but not always - correlated with the psychological response of anxiety. These include all the symptoms of an adrenaline rush: pounding heart, racing pulse, shallow or quick breathing, tunnel vision, etc.
Your whole body is one big feedback loop, though, and so effects happening in your autonomic nervous system - panic - can affect your central nervous system and, in turn, amplify the panic. In this way, panic compounds anxiety, and vice versa. This is why panic attacks often also include feelings of dread, feeling like one is dying or going crazy, depersonalization (feeling as if one is not real), derealization (feeling as if the world is not real), and dissociation (a disconnection from sense of self, body, or reality).
When I go to lie down during a panic attack, I’m locked in a room at the very top of my head, a perfect cube, completely dark. All of my senses come through muffled and disjoint, the rest of the house of my mind is locked and shut away in some state I can’t access, and I can barely figure out the structure of the house of my body. Who knows what’s going on in the next room, or the room down the hall? There’s just that one little perfectly dark cube left for me to hide in while the rest of the house rocks and shifts and shakes in a storm of panic, or settles and creaks under its own weight.
As the panic recedes, more and more doors are unlocked, more shutters thrown open, blinds lifted, curtains tied back as I regain control of mind and body. Clumsy at first, stuttering, unable to fully understand language written or spoken, I start to inhabit more and more of myself to the point where I regain my connection with the world around - and within - me.
Analogies, man… Do those feel any better?
I feel almost split in two sometimes. There is this part of me that undergoes massive dissociation and depersonalization to the point where I spend an hour and a half all but comatose, and then there is part of me that is really here, is really present. I have to use the one to look at and investigate the other, to figure out what’s going on, but only sidelong. That other part of me is too magnetic, too easy to fall into, it seems. If I get too close, look to hard, then I risk slipping back into that side of myself, where muscles in my neck and back tense up, fists clench and unclench, head tics nervously to the side, heartburn climbs my esophagus, and I start to lose touch with what things are and how they work.
I have to investigate, too. I have to find out what started things, whether this was triggered by anxiety, and if so, what (if anything) might have triggered the anxiety. I have to walk back down that path just to see if there was something I could notice sooner, some earlier point at which I could have subverted things.
Of course. Because it always comes back to control, with you.
To that end, my doctor thinks that the fluoxetine is helping quite a bit with the general anxiety, as is the alprazolam, though that will probably be tapered out before long. The treatment for generalized anxiety is working well, and continues apace.
The treatment for panic, however, is being stepped up, to combat the obvious increase in panic over the last few months. I’m to keep a schedule of when panic attacks happen, including how long and how strong (which I already do with @foxproblems, of course; kudos, me). I’m to feel free to break up panic attacks with lorazepam (which, taken sublingually, acts very fast) and now also propanolol, a beta-blocker, which should help break up some of the somatic effects of panic such as the pounding heart, shallow breathing, tunnel vision, and so on (which, again, tend to cause me to panic more by their very existence).
Do I think I’m getting better? Or worse?
Mu. Better and worse are falsehoods. Only change, and even that doesn’t matter.
I think I’m getting better. The anxiety is to the point where I feel real, present, and…well, normal more now than I have in years and years. The panic is bad, but it’s also more visible by the very fact that the general anxiety is better. The somatic response is less connected to the psychological one these last few months that it may have seemed, because anxiety was always running high. Now that the anxiety is manageable, the beast that is panic is clearly visible. While I can’t necessarily remember everything, I don’t even think I’m having more panic now than I was before. It’s just that much more visible.
That said, I’m super thankful for James and Russ for being so supportive, as well as Kris, Peri, Lu, Nakita, JM (especially JM, who has helped twice now in keeping [a][s] running while I fix my broken-down self), and a ton of others. I know I’m a sap, and I know I get maudlin a lot
Understatement of the year.
but you all deserve your thanks, and all my love. You are real. I’m real. This is all real. It’s hard to disentangle what is and isn’t sometimes, but I’m keeping on it, and you all are helping.
I used to write with an ‘ally’, way back when, whenever I was writing therapeutically. It would be contrived elsewhere, and it probably seems contrived here, but sometimes it helps me, so please bear with me.
Not that you give much choice.