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Tell Panic Attacks to Go Suck It

panic-attacks-01If you frequent this site I’m going to guess that at one time or another you may have enjoyed the crippling embrace of a panic attack. How could I predict such a thing??? Because people who suffer from anxiety tend to be smarty-pants-creative types, aka NERDISTS. Folks not blessed with the gift of hyper-self-awareness don’t really understand the rush of liquid fear that floods the body. They just think we’re being “kooky.” I have a joke in my act about trying to describe the feeling of a full-blown panic attack: “Imagine being F*CKED in the HEART.”

I had my very first panic attack at about age 10. Adorable! For some reason or other I thought I had eaten rat poison and was convinced that the flush I felt running through me was, in fact, poison-related. Fortunately I’m here to say that it was not poison, or at least INCREDIBLY slow-acting poison (maybe I should call my doctor). After that episode I didn’t get them again until college. Unaware of the concept of a panic attack, I was convinced that something was horribly wrong with me and I couldn’t leave my apartment for a month. The prospect of having it happen in public kept me under emotional house-arrest. It wasn’t until a friend of mine pointed out, “Oh yeah, that’s a thing. Lots of people have those.” The sheer knowledge that I wasn’t a freak helped ebb the panic tide for a while but every now and again I’d still get the hilariously familiar, “No…wait…THIS time it’s something fatal.” I’m here to tell you that not only are panic attacks NOT fatal, but I don’t get them anymore. THAT CAN ABSOLUTELY HAPPEN FOR YOU. In this article I’d like to share a few tips that I’ve learned over the years while navigating the anxiety steeplechase.

KEEP YOUR HEARTRATE DOWN
This could be the single most important thing to remember. It’s easy to believe that panic is purely emotional, but it’s not. It’s physiological. Emotions may set it off, but once the trigger has been pulled it’s “100% pure adrenaline!” as Point Break would say. (It would also say, “Ayeee am an FBI AyyyGENT!!!” and then we would hold Point Break while rocking and patting it and saying, “Shhhhh…of course you are….”) What your body is ACTUALLY plunging into is survival mode, or the classic Fight or Flight response. This explains is why you want to punch the air or run yourself into a wall like a 28 Days Later chimp. This impulse is left over from our forest dwelling days and is usually reserved for actual life or death situations. Think of it as an evolutionary gift that keeps on giving. And giving.

I’m not purporting to have a complete grasp of neuroscience, but if I were to take a guess I would say that our brain isn’t some wonder-organ that all of the sudden just appeared from the Ether and existed in harmonious wholeness (sorry, Creation Museum). It is the result of millions of years of more and more complex layers lumping over our lizard stems like a bad spackle job. When you feel that first twinge of panic your body is asking itself, “Am I in danger?” and for panic sufferers the answer is usually, “WHY, IN FACT I AM!!!” even though they’re not really—the brain is just misfiring, bless it. It means well. It’s just trying to protect us REAL HARD. The body then takes us down the adrenaline river ride that we all know and love, shedding our higher brain functions along the way until we end up a heap of panting flesh not knowing which way to run, reduced to LOLcat syntax as our means of communication: “Me wan tare skin noff!” It’s a survival mechanism with abject terror as a delightful side-effect.

Let’s examine that first point of entry, “Am I in danger?” Sometimes it might be enough to gently say, “No,” or at least acknowledge, “OK, I know what this is…” But if that don’t cut the cerebral mustard try to remind yourself how adrenaline gets through your body: though a fast-pumping heart. That is why it is CRUCIAL to keep your heart rate down. If your heart is slow and normal, you cannot experience anxiety. It is impossible to exist in both states. Remember, this is a chemical thing. Rather than focusing on how “You might really be dying this time,” focus on the SCIENCE of what’s happening to you. Your instinct may be to fight, but that just makes it worse. Focus on actually making your heart beat SLOWER. Pretend it’s a game and first prize is sanity.

AVOID CAFFEINE
As you probably know, panic & caffeine have an electrical sexual chemistry: the former comes right after the latter (terrible pun mostly not intended). About eight years ago my attacks flared up again after having been dormant for some time. “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING AGAIN???!” I pondered over a nice hot cup of coffee one day about five minutes before another one hit. When I went over the timetable of events in my head, there seemed to be a connection. Just for the hell of it, I Googled “coffee & panic attacks” and proceeded to enjoy the two million pages that popped up, warning of the atomic dangers of caffeine to the panic-stricken. I know, coffee is a bitchin’ dominatrix that kicks your ass through the day with a 20 oz. boot, but at what cost? If you can let it go, you should. You will experience almost instant results. Like not thinking you’re dying.

BREATHE, MAN, BREATHE!
Just think, if you had a panic attack 500 years ago they’d have thought you were possessed by some manner of dark spirit and you’d’ve had the panic burned or bled out of you! Stupid Middle Ages! Today, we know that simple yet proper breathing techniques are helpful with no loss of blood necessary. At the onset of an attack it will feel counter-intuitive but you have to trust that it works. Take slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth and let the oxygen fill your lungs as you push your tummy out (yes, I am a grown man who uses ‘tummy.’ I find it more palatable than ‘food bag’ or ‘shit garage’.) This process will help you in two ways: 1) A slowed heart can’t pump fear through your body, and 2) The very act of focusing on a measured activity will take your thoughts away from your panic.

Most people breathe very shallowly, up in their chest, and this is very true of panicky-types. Especially when you feel that chest tighten. When you take a good, productive breath your stomach should extend outward because you’re getting air all the way into your lungs. When you exhale, your stomach will go back in, pushing the air out. If you can sit quietly for a few minutes while doing this, you will start to feel your chest relax and warm, tingly bits in the pit of your tummy. Imagine those are spreading though your body. You will feel all keen. Remember, you need oxygen to live so get that stuff into you. Take a yoga class…learn to meditate…buy some new age-y book on breathing…play a sitar…whatever it takes. It’s worth it because you’re worth it.

EPILOGUE

Welp, I hope you’ve gained some insight today and that, if you are a panic sufferer, you know that you have hope, which sometimes by itself is enough to make the panic dragons stop dining on your soul. But keeping that heart rate below “NASCAR” isn’t just for panic attacks anymore! It’s also good for quelling anger, hysteria and just plain old stress (the vanilla of neuroses). Why share my failures and deeply personal experiences with you? Because I want you to feel better. No one should have to live in fear of oneself ESPECIALLY when the threat isn’t real. Don’t let your body trick you. It is possible to ignore your brain. It’s a process but you can do it. If you forget any of this stuff in the middle of the night, you can always bookmark this page and come back to it because the Internet is FOREVER. Now please get out of my head!!!

*As a tribute to the theme of this post, I’m including at no additional charge this classic Hard ‘n Phirm video that is an en fuego Latin love song celebrating the ubiquitous nature of the word that pops up in every Spanish song: El Corazón—THE HEART.

Comments

  1. Cyril Karavachev says:

    Is it true that panic attacks can go away I think mine did but now I feel not normal why ???? I still think that I’m not ok is that normal I’ve had panic attacks for about a week and suddenly I cryed a little and then my anxiety is gone my pulse is almost normal ????? WTF I’m feeling weard PLS WRITE HELP IF SOMEONE HAS FELT THAT OR KNOWS SOMETHING !

  2. Gina says:

    Usually when I search for solace during my times of anxiety on the internet, I find uptight posts that generally make me more anxious. But this post (written in my native nerdist tongue) was lighthearted and was exactly what I needed in the midst of panic. I think I may just bookmark this to come back to it next time I’m pretty sure I’m dying (if i’m laughing, I’m probably not dying, right?)

  3. Zoya says:

    My very first bout of anxiety (it was not a full blown panic attack), was when I first started kindergarten. I was young for a kindergartner and i lived far from my school ( I was in the middle of moving from manhattan to the suburbs). On the days that I didn’t throw up on the way to school (I had motion sickness) I start getting a what I described back then as a “crummy” feeling in my stomach and started to cry. My teacher contacted my mom about it but since she knew I got sick a lot before I got to school thought it was related to it. My separation anxiety got better/vanished as I got used to school and made friends. I didn’t have a full fledged panic attack until I turned 10, when my questioning of life and death started (more so my fear of death itself). It was at this point where I clung to religion as well as my mother (who at the time had no idea what was going on) because anytime that I was alone I would start to wonder “what happens after you die” and that would set of a wave of panic which would cause me to throw up and cry. These episodes persisted for about a month and a half. I’ve had panic attacks a few series of panic attacks since then (I am currently 14). It wasn’t until I was 13 ( when i started 9th grade) did I realize what was happening and I learned how to control it. I found out the reason why I panic and the things that trigger it and when I encounter those things I either avoid it or breathe deeply to calm myself (so I don’t panic) and then I proceed doing what I was doing. I know this is a really long post but I figured if I explain it properly and how I handle them because I know they can be triggered by almost anything and are a pain when your a student (like myself) and they tend to distract you from your studies.
    If you read this long post I really appreciate your patience and I hope I explained things well enough. While I do still have panic attacks they have reduced in number/frequency since I was 10 because I have learned to react to them and stop them accordingly. :)

  4. Sean says:

    Yes my first panic attack happened in my sleep at age 36. I believe it was from excessive caffine but not sure. 3 weeks and a bunch of xanax later iam still anxious in the day but couldnt sleep hardly at all the first two weeks. I only have trouble with panic now in my sleep, sometimes i wake up sweating a swimming pool. Just going to take it one day at a time.

  5. mewritegood says:

    Nerds are extremely creative types, dorks are people that sit around and spew about the Walking Dead and Doctor Who. Because you can name the entire 8-bit NES library in a single breath, does not a nerd make you. It makes you a dork.

  6. Millie says:

    Thank you for a great article!
    and some more nerdy facts… the more the merrier! :)
    1) coffee has caffeic acid, which is works as thiaminase, it makes you lose thiamine. Anything with an -ase suffix means it disintegrates something. Like enzyme lactase helps us digest lactose, for example. So, coffee with its vicious caffeic acid makes you lose thiamine. Thiamine, or B1 vitamin, is a vital substance that keeps us sane, stable and energetic. Remember how your hands shake after a couple of cups of strong coffee? that’s the symptom of thiamine deficiency. Other symptoms of B1 deficiency are agitation, irritability, irregular heart beat, confusion, muscle weakness, shakiness, etc.
    Remember horror stories about some hard-core alcoholics going into wild delirium? that’s extreme thiamine deficiency, alcoholics are the main sufferers. Isn’t it fun to know that if you drink coffee you are kind of related to alcoholics….
    Other things that may cause depletion of B1 and possibly affect your sanity: diarrhea, mercury poisoning (amalgams), candida, horsetail supplements, drinking or eating anything with tannic acid (like tea, wine, or herbal tea made of tree bark, like cascara sagrada, for example).

    2) Magnesium deficiency is related to panic attacks, as well as to breathing difficulty, racing heart, fear, losing your mental focus, muscle aches, PMS, insomnia. What makes us lose magnesium? Right, coffee as it is a powerful diuretic. So, coffee just makes us pee out our sanity….

    3) Potassium – just the same as magnesium in many effects. Deficiency symptoms: dizziness, irritability, insomnia, cramping muscles, heart problems, panic attacks… How we lose it? right, by drinking coffee as well as by taking diuretics, or when having loose stool and when we forget to eat fruits and veggies.

    Do you still love your coffee?
    I’d say, if you absolutely have to have that cup of coffee, take supplemental B1, Mag and Potassium.

    hm, what else, Niacin (B3 vitamin) is a vital substance for our sanity. Loss of it causes pellagra, which is sometimes confused with schizophrenia… don’t you just love it?

    I also have reasons to think that our kidneys (and adrenals) are important in keeping us brave and stable. Have you heard of adrenal exhaustion? That is a very fertile ground for going into panic attacks if not treated. How to treat it? High fat (preferably animal fat) diet, lots of egg yolks, oysters, butter, lard, avocados, coconut oil and absolutely no coffee, white sugar and refined carbs (like white flour). Falling asleep no later than 11pm is vital for kidneys and adrenals and … for our sanity and being fearless.

    And that’s just a short version of my view on panic attacks :)
    Hope this helps!

  7. michelle says:

    Thanks for this post, It’s nice to read about something like this with a sense of humour attached to it. I was panicky today and reading this helped me. Thanks.

  8. Uhlizza says:

    I want to add that I am a “Recovered Panic Attack Suffer” ha – if there is such a term, well there is one now. I am a female, now 51 but I have been largely panic free since I was 45. For reasons unnecessary, I won’t go into the why, but I had a hysterectomy, complete. Thus, all of my hormones that I used to produce are gone, replaced with Hormone Replacement Therapy. I LOVE my new set of hormones, lol. They do not throw me into panic attacks, ever. I sometimes feel anxiety, especially in situations where I used to get full blown attacks (the back of large stores, malls, driving, (places where I felt trapped). I did have very bad PMS with my old set of hormones, now I do not have PMS at all, of course. So for you woman of a certain age, if you are suffering with panic attacks, check with you Gyno to see if he/she has ever heard of the relief of your panic attacks by having a hysterectomy. I don’t think any doc. would do it for that reason but for me, luckily I suffered many ovarian cysts so that gave him a reason for him to yank my plumbing. Another thing, at least with me, is I have never felt like I am “less of a woman” in fact I am more of one, with the right HRT, and I lack the (people thought of loony) attacks now to, I am calm with not PMS which makes me a much more pleasant woman.

  9. alissa says:

    feeling a panic attack can change your life forever

  10. Drew says:

    Chris,
    I would say it takes alot of “guts” to write an article like this but I think a more appropriate word would be “heart”. As I’m sure you and everyone who took the time to read this article know, it means alot to know you’re not a weirdo and you’re not alone. Thanks for being more than a character in the pantheon of pop-culture, thanks for being a human being.

  11. HarryMonmouth says:

    I now know what I have to do. The brain thinks it is fight or flight time yet I am in an office facing a laptop and a stack of paper. The obvious solution is to run away. When someone can evolve me a body designed to sit in an office then I will go back to doing that, but as I have a body designed for running away I might as well play to my strengths.

  12. Arthur says:

    It was really great to read this! Glad to see people talking about this wth a sense of humor Ive been recently having panic attacks a lot too and i think it was a stocmach bug that set them off living away from home too in my freshman year of college. Every now and then i get convinced im having a heart attack or stroke and i even went to the ER and they checked me and verything was fine. Thought that would settle it but i still find a week later that whenever i feel a tiny bit of anything in my chest area i automatically start panicking. Not fun for sure, medication does help but it makes you sleepy so its hard ta it in the day. I find after breathing and all that laughing and humor help a lot too, though its funy i never drink coffee so i now know i definitely dont want to! haha

  13. Jerry says:

    I feel a bit “late to the party” since I only just recently discovered The Nerdist podcast but I’m really glad I came across it. I heard Chris mention his experience with panic attacks in one episode and I could totally relate. I hope his sound advice helps as many of you as possible. There’s also a program out there called The Linden Method that has really helped me. While I don’t wish panic attacks on anyone it sorta makes me feel a bit better knowing I’m not alone. What the heck… a round of virtual hugs for EVERYONE from me!

  14. Kelsey says:

    I’m glad to read this. I have panic attacks frequently and actually had one earlier today, so this is really cool to read. I am a big Nerdist fan and reading this coming from you is pretty cool.

  15. Bri says:

    I was wandering the internet in search of help concerning my panic attacks, and as a frequent visitor of the Nerdist, when a link to this page popped up I was immediately intrigued. Thanks so much Chris H. I will definitely try to follow the information you provided, its kind of nice to know that someone famous actually experiences these frightening episodes. So I’ll just try and breathe and convince myself I’m not dying.

  16. James Leroy says:

    I love Chris Hardwick even more now. He is so funny and real.

  17. Sara says:

    Wow, this is great Chris. I’ve never heard a better description of panic attacks! I’ve had them for about 10 years now, and it is really frustrating trying to explain to someone how you are SURE you are going to die. You are right right, breathing exercises are SOOO helpful. I got to the point where I could not leave my house (that’s right kids, the word for today is, Agoraphobia!). I did go the medication route, which helped me get control of my life again. But I applaud anyone who can change their habits enough to quell the buzzing, writhing animal that is the adrenaline dump/chemical overload. I wish you all the best in your quest for peace! Yoga is really helpful too!
    I love you nerdist, you make me giggle and guffaw =D

  18. Tanya says:

    I wish I had found this so much sooner. I am a panic attack sufferer, too. Sometimes I even have them before something really good happens to me. Did that ever happen to you?

  19. Ben says:

    Me like article. Article help gud. Me no stress more.

  20. KittyGeek says:

    I realize this blog post is from a while back, nevertheless thanks!
    It’s really reassuring to hear I’m not the only person who has suffered from these, but also that someone I admire has experienced it. Its true that people don’t really understand wth a panic attack is and think you’re just a weirdo. But it feels nice to be a weirdo with the nerdist.

    -kg

  21. rach says:

    i have suffered from panic attacks for a long time now and happens nearly everyday.im fine and feel safe in my own home but wants im out and about,esp in shops and busy places i panic.It started when i was a teenager!ive been to doctors god nos how many times….they have done my suger levels,bloods and even refered me to have a brain scan,it wasnt untill my results come back clear they put it down to panic attacks.Its a strange feeling that happens to me,i feel like im going to faint,my heart starts beating fast i sweat and sometime get numb feeling in parts of my body,again i thought something was wrong with me!!its is realy starting to effect my life now and sometime im get scared to go shopping or go out with my husband and friend incase it happens!i have 2 children age 5 and 2,the doctor said its realy common after child birth but i hv suffered along time!!i never stop going out but im like a nerves wreck everytime and once i get home im relaxed!i realy need help because i dnt understand why its happenin,im not depressed but it does get my down!i think my fear is clapesing or fainting!sometime i feel like im not all there,like im in a dream world,and i dnt no if im dreaming or its realy life haha god i sound crazy!i will be walking around a shop then it will hit me and i jst need to run out!the doctor said antidpression tablets r the only thing that helps but was advised not to take them because they r addictive!

    i was suprised how many ppl this affects in different way and im not alone!!

    thanks for this post

    rach
    x

  22. Becca says:

    Thanks for this.

    I’m a nerdist myself. :)

    I had my first panic attack a little under a year ago while on a class trip. Ended up in the ER not knowing what was going on. When I returned home, all the anxiety and panic went away and didn’t come back until this past January. I had a panic attack at work, but I didn’t know what caused it. I thought it was because I hadn’t eaten all day and I DO have sugar issues. Then all of a sudden I had anxiety everyday and could barely attend classes and was home “sick” all the time. I got so fed up with being in my shell that I told myself to get off my ass and do somethign about it; so I did. I take “stresstabs” and they work wonders. I realized that my first panic attack was because I had had a LARGE coffee on our way down on our trip; and I’m a very small female. My second panic attack was because I had a coffee before going to work. And that had caused my general anxiety.

    I still have anxiety, but hadn’t had another panic attack for two1/2 months until about an hour ago. I had had a cup of coffee this morning.

    Thanks a lot. This article helps a lot for us nerdist panic-y types. :)

  23. algonacchick says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge about panic attacks. I’m sure this article will help a lot of people. I have had one or two in my time, but very infrequently. I have to slow down on caffeine because it gives me headaches more than anything else, but it makes sense that it can trigger panic attacks. I had a bout with panic attacks’ evil cousin, seizures about 2 months ago. I don’t remember anything about the seizures, but when you mentioned the brain misfiring, that’s what happens with seizures as well. Sadly, I have some memory loss due to the seizures. I also dislocated my shoulder because I fell from a standing position during a seizure. Doing better now. Anyway, I think it was brave of you to share this with everyone.

  24. Vanessa says:

    First of all, you’re adorable. Second and more importantly, thanks for posting this. I got my first panic attack at 8 years old, when I was pretty sure every bite of food I swallowed was going to lodge in my throat and choke me to death, unless my mother was in the room to save my life. So, I spent a lot of time hungry and terrified to eat. You’re absolutely right about just knowing that other people go through the same thing, too. I follow you on twitter and subscribe to your podcast and while I’m a little late to the game on this, I just wanted to tell you I appreciate the unsolicited advice and intend to take the bulk of it to heart.

  25. Jennifer Keegan says:

    Thanks,
    I really enjoyed that video.
    I also have suffered from panic attacks ever since I was a teenager, and for the longest time I would mentally beat myself up thinking there was something definitely wrong with me. I came to the realization that not only did caffeine effect me, it was that I was not eating properly. Hypoglycemia can have the same “symptoms” of anxiety and panic attacks. I must always monitor my caffeine consumption and make sure that I eat a small snack every few hours. Thanks again Chris for the great advice and I’ll be watching you on talk soup!!

  26. Jess says:

    I suffer from panic attacks too. And yes i’m a “nerdist” too 😉 I’m a web designer and graphic designer.
    I never knew that caffeine can trigger panic attacks! It makes sense, though i don’t know if i can stop having coffee.
    Luckily i haven’t had a panic attack in a year (touch wood)!

  27. Amanda says:

    Thank you for this….I suffer from panic attacks myself. They are really hard to deal with sometimes. Like you said, caffeine makes it worse. I would drink coffee and wonder why I was feeling so edgy and freaked out. And the adrenaline thing: a few years back a friend and me went to Six Flags over Georgia and of course, the goal was to ride roller coasters. Well, I got on this ride called “The Nija” and after about the 475,675th time we went upside down, I was sure I was going to die. I could not even speak. Just sat there like a corpse. That was not a fun trip (ended up at the emergency room…not me, my friend got dehydrated and really sick. Damn, that trip sucked.) But my panic attacks have pretty much quadrupled since 2006 when I got laid off from a job that actually was so bad it changed who I was as a person. BUT lately, I am trying like hell to take better care of myself, no more caffeine, mediating, yoga and some cardio and journaling. It is a slow process, but it does seem to be helping. Sorry for the many, many words, and thanks again.

  28. Anthony says:

    Yep, I definitely know the feelings described in yon post. Runs in my family, and therefore through my veins. The crush of panic can make you look like a deer dumbstruck in the headlights of an unfeeling universe; for me, it fixates me on the inevitability of death, the futility of life and the sad, tragic, pathetic, teeming mass we call humanity. Not much of a bright sad to that, is there?

  29. Alex says:

    Hey man- thanks for posting. Not many people have the guts to talk about the stuff they face…

  30. Beth says:

    how relevant since i just found this and had a panic attack not too long ago at work. I’m a cashier. It was really hard to keep it under control and ring people out at the same time. Trying not to run and cry and try to smile convincingly at people. I’m not quite sure it worked all that well.

    That video SO would have come in handy last year during anatomy class since i pretty much failed the section on the heart. lol Oh well.