I had a panic attack the other day. It was a small one. I don’t get them often, the last big one was over four years ago. Still, they are not fun to have. Body tenses up… assuming a self-protective, though not quite fetal position… breathing gets shallower… head feels ready to explode. It was not enjoyable.
I was questioning life, my role in it, what I was doing with it, whether it was worthwhile or not. Typically, my thoughts do not go in this direction. I have a pretty good sense of who I am and my value in life. Yet, I – and we – can go down this road from time to time if something triggers such thoughts. (A drawn-out version of this panic attack would look like a mid-life crisis.)
The panic attack was set off by reading some of my journal entries from about 10 years ago. I go back to my journals occasionally – at times to see what was going on in the past, sometimes to get material to do some writing. I had come across a criticism from a friend about my lack of planning in doing things. It was a harsh critique at the time and another friend had just dealt me a similar critique earlier in the week.
I like to do things on the spur of the moment, which often works well for me personally; yet it tends to aggravate others. Even for myself, this spur of the moment acting can lead to not doing much when I have trouble getting motivated. For others, it can leave them hanging.
I began focusing on these criticisms and the thoughts started snowballing. Though there was some validity to the critiques, in over-thinking them, my thoughts began going down a negative path: “I could have done so much more, been so much more, if I had been more of a planner!”
While I pride myself on being able to think rationally, I also know that rational thinking with poor or missing premises can take a person in the wrong direction. The snowball of negative thinking was rolling quickly now and I was stuck in the ever increasing anxiety of the panic attack.
It took awhile, but by getting up and moving around (doing a little physical activity), I was able to give my thoughts a time-out. Deciding to confront the friend who criticized me helped with the negative thinking as well (although it created another type of anxiety). It was the end of the day and this “time-out” helped me get to sleep that night. The next morning, many of the same thoughts came back, yet not to the extent of another panic attack. During the day, I involved myself in other activities and talked to other people about various other things. The issues that led to the panic attack were gone for the most part.
I could have left things alone, but I felt it would be better to try to address the thoughts that led to the panic attack. I got together with my friend who’d hit upon this sensitive topic for me and we had a good conversation. I learned that she was not outright attacking me, but responding to something that annoyed her. Talking it out helped clarify some thoughts that had been cycling around in my brain, making it easier to distinguish between the valid and invalid thoughts.
A week later, I am still reviewing what occurred during the panic attack. A few of the thoughts I had at the time are worth keeping around, looking at and working on; other thoughts I deemed irrational – and for the most part left them by the wayside.
Reggie E., MSW, CEAP, joined Empathia in 2005 as an EAP Counselor. Reggie has a master’s degree in Social Work as well as bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and the Comparative Study of Religion from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Prior to a career change to social work, he worked in a variety of fields, including banking, trucking and metal fabrication.