It wasn’t until I was 55 years old and had three clinical graduate degrees under my belt that I finally connected the dots: “I’m someone who suffers from panic attacks.” Sure, I knew the clinical symptomology and the DSM designation – I was even preparing to sit for clinical licensing. But panic attacks happened to “patients.” They only showed up in clinical case studies. I never dreamed of associating that kind of malfunctioning to me. It was like the lyric in the old Don McLean Crossroads song: “You know I heard about people like me, but I never made the connection. They walk one road to set them free, then find they’ve gone the wrong direction.” I also never understood that I’d learned to be reactive and essentially helpless in the face of such attacks.
Well, once I realized I’d been missing that self-diagnosis for decades, I couldn’t help but wonder what other diagnoses I might also be missing. It was at that point I decided I wasn’t mentally, physically, emotionally or psychologically fit to sit in an office all day long and listen in earnest to the untold suffering in people’s lives. It would not be good for my body or brain. Or other peoples’.
Reactive Guru Syndrome
Here’s how one panic attack showed up for me: a friend and I were scheduled to attend a week-long retreat at the Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar Conference Center outside Monterey, California. It was being led by a self-appointed American guru whom I’d never heard of, but whom my friend was interested in hanging out with for the week.
When we arrived, the guru was sitting in an elevated chair in the main room holding forth before a small group of acolytes. I walked in, took one look at him, felt myself flood with anxiety (I have since come to learn all about how the HPA axis works – the early warning sensor in the brain, the amygdala unconsciously registers a threat, which may or may not be real or present. It sends an SOS to the hypothalamus which releases the peptides, vasopressin and corticotropin-releasing hormone [CRH] in a flash. These messenger hormones then instant-message a signal to the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone [ACTH]. ACTH then notifies the adrenals sitting on top of my kidneys to release adrenaline muy pronto, in preparation to deal with the obviously imminent threat [it must be imminent or none of this neuro-hormonal symphony would be playing out, right?]).
In me at Asilomar, this hormonal flooding – apparently triggered by a somatic memory I had no words for, and thus could not use language to remember, identify or name – resulted in a flight reaction: without a single conscious thought I turned around and walked out of the hall. And kept on walking – the whole 4 miles back to Monterey where I took a bus back home to the San Francisco peninsula. Fleeing the scene was the only option available to me to get the cortisol I needed released by my adrenal cortices in order to help calm me down. It took the whole ride back to Menlo Park (where, interestingly I lived across the street from The Cookoo’s Nest – the VA Hospital where Ken Kesey flew over while working there as a student at Stanford. His stint there provided the raw material for his book) to finally get me calmed down. With my mind racing the whole time, I tried to make sense of what was essentially unconscious, senseless behavior triggered by buried traumatic memories that my language centers had no words for. But my body clearly recalled something threatening and reacted “appropriately,” in the best way it could manage to insure my safety.
This kind of body response accomplishes several things. First is, it can make you feel VERY crazy-cookoo. It doesn’t make sense to feel like you’re freaking out for no apparent reason in one of the most beautiful environments on the planet. Second, without an understanding of the neuro-physiology involved, I’m at a loss to make any sense whatsoever of the experience. Third, it begins to feel like I have a body that simply cannot be trusted. It may decide to betray me (and has) at any unexpected moment (like on my honeymoon in St. Maarten in the Caribbean where I ended up tossing a full, king-sized mattress across the bungalow room in a hissy fit – but that’s another trauma displacement story).
Free at Last
Fortunately, I’ve essentially been free of panic attacks for more than a decade. What mostly helped was a graduate class in the neurophysiology of psychological trauma that I audited – cognitive understanding does provide some benefit – understanding the reasons and the mechanisms at play when the attacks occurred went a long way towards normalizing them. I also put that information together with a few sessions of Reprocessing Therapy and came away realizing it’s reassuring to know that you’re not crazy even when it may look and feel that way inside your body; and to also know it’s most often simply healing trying to happen. Which, sometimes actually does!