One morning almost 20 years ago, J.T. Lewis hailed a cab because she was late to work. As she settled into the back seat, Lewis noticed the car seemed unusually hot, dirty and cramped. The driver’s seat was so far back it seemed to be crushing her. She felt sweaty and light-headed.
“Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe,” Lewis recalls. “There was this crushing chest pain. I knew something was terribly wrong. Was I dying?”
The attack subsided after a few minutes, but Lewis was so shaken she had the driver drop her at her physician’s office. After a battery of tests, the doctor told her there was nothing physically wrong with her.
A few weeks later, Lewis, who frequently traveled for her job as a lawyer, had just buckled into first class on a plane when it happened again. The pressure in her chest. The feeling that she couldn’t breathe. Sweaty and pallid, she asked the flight attendant for some water.
The flight attendant took one look at her and instead had the pilot return the plane to the gate, so Lewis could get off. “I was frustrated, confused and humiliated,” Lewis said. “I began avoiding business travel.”
After that, the panic attacks started happening more often. In the short run, medicine quelled her symptoms: Her doctor prescribed daily beta blockers plus Xanax for the moments when she felt an attack coming on (for example, before she got on a plane).
Reluctant to rely on medicine, Lewis also began meeting with a cognitive therapist, who helped her develop strategies to get through an attack in the moment and to reduce the anxiety that triggered them. It took time, but Lewis eventually got the panic attacks under control.
Now retired from law practice, she hasn’t had a full-blown panic attack in years.
How she copes: Lewis says seeing a therapist who specialized in cognitive behavior therapy was key to getting her life back.
During an attack, she focuses on breathing deeply by lengthening her exhale. She may also do something physical to interrupt the flow of the panic: a cold cloth on her face, a pinch of the arm, or a spritz of lavender water.
Lewis says it’s important to acknowledge and not fight the attack: “I remind myself that I am not dying. I am safe, and this will pass. In fact, each minute of the attack is bringing me closer to the end of it.”
“It feels like my body is going at the speed of light.”
Kevin Rosko, 61, Michigan City, Ind.
Kevin Rosko was 10 years old when he had his first panic attack. It happened after he watched his uncle get smashed in the head with a baseball. Even though his uncle ended up being fine, Rosko couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen.
That night in the bathtub, his heart started racing, his body felt numb and he told his mom he couldn’t breathe.
The panic attacks continued to happen occasionally through Rosko’s childhood and adult life. He saw different therapists and tried a variety of medications, but none got his anxiety totally under control.
“My heart starts pumping like I’m running Mount Everest,” he says. “It feels like my body is going at the speed of light. I get pain in my arms and back, I feel dizzy, my mind is racing.”
Rosko worked as a crane operator at a steel mill before retiring in 2014. If he felt an attack coming on at work, his boss was good about giving him the rest of the day off.
Rosko also helped to care for his sister, who had Down syndrome and came to live with him when he was in his 40s. After being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years ago, she became more difficult to care for. That’s when Rosko’s panic attacks ramped up. He began having one about every 10 days, severely impacting his quality of life.
Fortunately, a nurse practitioner suggested a medication called Lexapro. Rosko was skeptical because he had tried so many others, but it worked.
“It relaxes me,” he says. “It helps me feel less antsy.”
In combination with guided subliminal meditation and other techniques, Rosko said he’s now able to stop most panic attacks before they escalate.
How he copes: Rosko meditates regularly, limits his caffeine intake and gets emotional support from a Facebook group for panic attack sufferers. If he feels an attack coming on, he gives his body a physical jolt by running his wrists under cold water, and then lays down, focusing on rhythmic breathing.
He also gets periodically checked by a cardiologist. “It’s incredibly reassuring in the moment to know that it’s not a heart issue, that your heart is OK,” he says.
“You’re frozen. You can’t move. You think the end is coming.”
Corky Klein, 63, Laguna Beach, Calif.
She gets light-headed, and a little dizzy. Then the headache and the panic hit.
“You forget about everything around you,” Klein says. “Your heart is beating horribly, and that brings on more panic. You get this scared feeling and you want to run. But you’re frozen. You can’t move. You think the end is coming.”
Klein began having panic attacks after her mom died when she was 16. Over the years, she says her anxiety led her into dark bouts of alcoholism and addiction, into long periods of isolation, and on many trips to the emergency room.
Ten years ago, at age 53, she was still having frequent panic attacks, even though she had kicked her addictions. Concerned, her doctor persuaded her to try therapy, and she began seeing a cognitive behavior therapist who specialized in anxiety.
This content was originally published here.