Panic Attacks: When Fear Gets Physical

About this time last year, my nervous system went haywire. I was more or less minding my own business when suddenly my heart started racing like I was sprinting on a treadmill, the muscles of my chest constricted until I felt as though I couldn’t get any air in my lungs, my intestines cramped up like I had food poisoning, and what I can only describe as a physical sensation of total dread rolled up my spine, out into my shoulders and into the base of my skull over and over again. Without being able to explain myself, I rose to my feet and started power walking the perimeter of my living room.

I was having a panic attack, and it went on like this for three days.

At the time, I kept telling everyone “I don’t understand, it came out of nowhere!” But looking back, that isn’t entirely true. The week my panic attacks began was also the week of my son’s second birthday, a very tense Election Day, and our closing on a house we’d just bought in a city we’d never lived in. Oh, and not to mention that, in spite of our best efforts to do everything right, everyone in my house had COVID and someone very close to us, someone from our “isolation pod,” was hospitalized with it. It seems glaringly obvious to me now that this was all simply too much for my already anxious brain to handle, but at the time it all seemed so sudden and random I was convinced over and over again that it was COVID-related and that I was going to die.

That’s an important feature of panic attacks I hadn’t known before. You see, with anxiety, your brain and your thoughts may race, you may repeat your fears over and over in your head, or visualize worst case scenarios in vivid detail.

With panic attacks, however, your fear becomes physical.

It isn’t the obvious thoughts in your head causing the distress, but rather your body’s reaction to the stress. In a panic attack, your fight or flight instincts go into overdrive, and you feel it in your heart and chest and muscles and digestive system and lungs. Many people who experience panic attacks end up in the emergency room, certain they are having a heart attack. Experiencing these sensations for the first time while recovering from COVID, I was convinced it was a medical complication and by day 3 of nonstop terror rolling through my body, I landed at urgent care, where I finally managed a bit of relief when they assured me my lungs and chest were clear and my blood oxygen levels were normal.

I wish I could say that after that everything went back to normal, but that is not the case. After the initial three days of “rolling panic attacks” (a fun term for when panic attacks go on and on and keep peaking repeatedly instead of ending after the standard ten minutes,) I had a few good days before they returned with a vengeance. This experience made me more afraid of having another panic attack than anything else, which led to a vicious cycle of having a panic attack because I was afraid of having a panic attack. I saw a doctor and a therapist, without which I’m not sure where I’d be now. But one of the best things I did for myself at this time was swallowing my pride and sharing my struggle publicly. I posted an Instagram story asking if I knew anyone else who had ever had an experience like I was having.

What I really needed to know was, “Will I ever be okay again?”

I was overwhelmed by the number of friends who shared their stories with me and it was a massive comfort knowing that it wouldn’t last forever.

Now, a year later, I can say that my friends were right. My doctor prescribed me a daily medication to help me manage my day-to-day anxiety, and a medication I can take as needed should I have another panic attack (which I am happy to say I have not needed in ten months!). My therapist helped me develop daily practices to lower my stress and check in with my mind so I can avoid having all of my internal alarms going off at once again. I now do 5-10 minutes of mindfulness practice and 5-10 minutes of journaling every single night before bed, and (I hate to say it, but it works) I have gotten into the habit of exercising most, if not all, days of the week. Friends taught me breathing exercises and grounding techniques that I now employ when I feel a panic coming on and they always manage to keep me from going off the deep end. I’ve read many books and even filled out workbooks on the subject and at this time I am proud to say I feel like my nervous system and I am on the same team again.

The self-care involved in getting to this point wasn’t easy or glamorous or sexy but it was 100% worth it.

The most important thing I want to leave you with is the knowledge that, if this should happen to you, if you should suddenly have what 50 years ago they probably would have called a “nervous breakdown,” there is hope. I am here on the other side to assure you that you will not feel like this forever. Eventually, you are going to feel like yourself again. And in the meantime, reach out, because I promise you are not alone.

Libby Judice-Smith
Libby was born and raised in Baton Rouge. She is a graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where she studied theatre and film performance in their dual campus program in both New York and Los Angeles. She then spent many years traveling the world as a character performer with Disney Cruise Lines, and later as a lounge musician along with her husband, Garrett, for Celebrity Cruises. After returning home to plant roots and have their son, Crosby, Libby and Garrett decided to make the move to Lafayette to be closer to family, and they couldn’t be happier with their decision. Libby now satisfies her wanderlust by exploring all that her new beloved hometown has to offer, and still loves to occasionally play music with her husband as Sugar and Honey, their acoustic pop duo.


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