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Atypical or Shutdown Panic Attacks

February 22, 2017


You’ve probably seen the typical panic attacks portrayed on television and movies. Someone starts to hyperventilate, surges of bodily sensations such as the heart races, adrenaline spikes, thoughts that you’re dying, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, disorientation, and other symptoms and frequently the person having the attack is given a paper bag to breathe in and out of or is slapped across the face. There still is not a convincing argument on whether being slapped is a safe way to break the panic cycle but the paper bag has some good science behind it. You breathe out carbon dioxide so if you’re hyperventilating this forces more carbon dioxide back into your system and will slow down your oxygen consumption – there’s still oxygen in your outgoing breath and why CPR works - which in turn will force you to slow down your breathing patterns (akin to putting out a fire by slowly taking away its oxygen source). Yes, I’ve hyperventilated before and this solution does work.

 Panic attacks are classified as major, minor, and chronic. A major attack is where you have all the symptoms I mentioned earlier or more and end up in an emergency room as you’re convinced you are going to die. Perhaps a prolonged “fight or flight” response might be the best way to describe such attacks if you’ve never had one. A minor attack is where you realize you are prone to panic attacks and do not totally believe you are going to die or are going crazy from what you are experiencing (“Hey, there is a 50-percent chance that I’m not having a heart attack. I’ve experienced this before so I’m probably having another panic attack.”); meaning that you just need some quiet time to calm down (meditation, removing yourself from the environment causing the problems, the paper bag technique, or medication). A chronic attack has all the symptoms but there was no trigger involved (e.g., no stressful or frightening situation such as claustrophobia or flying in an airplane) yet the symptoms are still there to varying degrees.


But many of us are not typical. I know I sure am not. My brain chemistry is slightly off so any sort of panic attack I would experience would follow suit. An atypical panic attack is when your body goes into a shut-down mode. In my case, it’s like someone flipped the off switch and I physically powered down.


If panic attacks have over-the-top symptoms, how is shutting down a panic attack? Simple, it’s like what happens to your home when you get a power surge. If the surge is too strong or too much, it will trip a switch or a breaker and the whole system shuts down in order to protect itself. Your body can do the exact same thing if it get too intense or too much to handle all at once. You’re still experiencing the symptoms but they came on so fast or strong to register them and that shutting down is the next step past the regular attacks.


Everyone is different. Yes, we’re all “special snowflakes” in that no one is mentally wired in exactly the same ways. Much like individual fetishes or kinks, what would cause a reaction to you may do nothing to/for me while a third person may have a mix of reactions and so on. As a part of these articles, the editors asked what moods were invoked, what was being thought of, what caused this to happen, and how quickly can this happen. I’m no psychiatrist and cannot claim I’m even close to understanding the human mind; either my own or others. But I can share my experience from my only “shut-down” major panic attack.


There was no one event or look or anything that caused it. No trigger word/action caused this. In looking back, it was a perfect storm of five factors that came to a head all at the same time for me. And it was utter misery.


1.) Lack of Sleep Attended a five-day long event. It’s a non-stop party so while I tried to sleep, I didn’t get as much as I normally do.


2.) Not eating properly Going non-stop for five days meant I was not eating as well as I should. Loaded up on crappy food, too much caffeine, lots of starchy and sugary foods for quick energy. For a short period of time, this can be done without much harm but for the better part of week, nope, not so good.


3.) Missed medications I have been taking medications for a multitude of reasons for years; depression, general anxiety, and diabetes. Given the crazy nature of the event, some doses were missed. Not the end of the world but not good either.


4.) Sexual expectations and frustration. I have… issues. Sex and the emotions tied to it are very complex/complicated situations for me. Mutually agreed upon plans fell through because of factors outside of my control. I admit that I did not take this disappointment well and reacted poorly as it greatly bothered and frustrated me. Devastation would be a more accurate sensation; again this is complex and one of the emotional issues I struggle with. Things were starting to unravel at this point.


5.) Jägermeister.

And here we have the last piece of the perfect storm puzzle. I had never tried Jägermeister and was curious about it. Despite what the label tells you, it does not behave like normal alcohol. It is much, much stronger and has an effect similar to major depressants (Quaaludes are the closest equivalent I can think of). Even with depression, I can handle a drink or two every now and again. But ingesting something that you did not know which acts like a major depressant when you already have depression? A very, very bad move.

Put together two or even three factors, I would have not been a happy camper but would have not completely shut down. But combine all five and I bypassed over the normal symptoms and went from being upset into a complete shutdown in the space of a few seconds. I honestly felt like my life was over. I believed that everyone I knew hated me or was disgusted by me or wanted to leave me. That what I had accomplished in my life was for nothing. It was like my depression and self-doubts had gotten a loud-speaker system and were shouting all my insecurities and everything I hated about myself back at me. And I was listening and believing it. All the while I sat quietly in total emotional agony while one of the major and fun events of my life was happening all around me.


People who know me or who have spent time around me know that I’m a major smart-ass yet a total sweetheart. I’m snarky but not mean (unless it is warranted). And I never stop talking. Ever. I generally am in a good or great mood, especially if I’m with people I like or consider my extended family, friends, or peers. Some ups and down but overall I feel pretty good. But during this attack, I completely shut down and crashed hard. I stopped talking. I went into a very, very dark fatalistic mind-space. Luckily, instead of taking out my … situation out on my roommates or others around me, I instead tried to use physical pain as a focus – punching the walls – to get past these feelings; hurting myself was acceptable but hurting others was not and this pain had helped me focus before. And it did help… for about 30 seconds at a time. If it weren’t for a good friend chatting with me from overseas for two nights in a row, I honestly don’t know what I would have ended up doing. Kind of scary and sobering not knowing what you are capable of doing when things go bad all around you.


I shared the flight home with one of my best friends. She was my “Best Dyke” at my wedding and I thought of her as a family member, a long-lost sister. You would think that if anyone could have seen that I was freaked out and melting down, she would have. Yet you would have been wrong. I almost never shut up and find it hard to resist throwing out a smart-ass comment (or twelve) but I think I said three words the entire flight home. My silence was me screaming for help. Something was terribly wrong. I didn’t know what or why or how but I was so far off the reservation I couldn’t even see the road signs back to it. But she was too caught up in her own self and self-interests to notice. A few weeks later, once I had gotten my equilibrium back – and reassurances that everything was good – I told my friend about how much distress I had been in, how much I had needed her help, and how disappointed that it never came. And it cost me greatly. She was blind-sided and did not take my criticism of her inaction and obliviousness well. A decades-long friendship was now dead. The other friend I was supposed to be with at the event eventually cut me completely out of her life, as well. Years later, I still don’t like it but I am living with it.


 It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that I had gone through a full-blown major panic attack where I had overloaded so much I shut myself down. That I had not grievously injured myself (except for some scraped up, bloodied knuckles and bruised hand bones) nor injured others was a minor miracle. In looking back, I would much rather have broken some bones or had my teeth pulled or drilled without anesthetics. That would have been less trauma and pain in the long run.

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