October 27, 2013

Anxiety attack like jumping out of plane without parachute

By Jack Smith

I felt it coming like a freight train barreling down on me and  I was hopelessly strapped to the tracks.

My mouth dried out within seconds. My pulse quickened.  My hands started to tremble. Even my legs shook as though it were the dead of winter and I were standing naked in the snow.

My wife realized what was happening, so she looked me in the eye and said go where you need to go. I scanned the area looking for an escape, which I usually plan out in advance for times like these.

[caption id="attachment_132" align="alignleft" width="300"]Anxiety attacks can feel like freefalling. Hard to stop once they start. Anxiety attacks can feel like free falling. Hard to stop once they start.[/caption]

You would have thought I were in a war and the enemy was after me.

I was really just attending a football game with 80-something thousands of my closest friends, as the t-shirt goes, when I had an anxiety attack.

I did what my wife and my instincts told me to do when it got out of hand. I got as far away from that huge mass of people as I could.

The best way I can describe a panic attack is that it feels like jumping out of an airplane...and then realizing you aren't wearing a parachute. I feel fine one minute. Then all of a sudden I'm in free fall, the ground getting bigger and bigger by the second.

When panic attacks hit, I'm suddenly overcome with angst. It leaves me with  two choices: fight or flight. Sometimes I stay and fight. Other times I get the hell out of there to gather myself.

When it happened yesterday, I walked away from the crowd to the safety of open space and a lonely bench. I tried a mindfulness exercise that I learned in treatment. It worked more or less.

I closed my eyes for a moment, took some deep breaths and focused on my senses. I listened to the roll of drums from the band playing in the distance. I felt the weight and the coolness of the wrought iron bench on my thighs and back. I drank in the smell of meat sizzling on the grill.  I inhaled deep breaths through my nose and exhaled them through my mouth.

I soon felt sane again, relaxed enough to enjoy the game and the time with my family.

I'm not sure if what I experienced Saturday afternoon was a full-blown panic attack or just social anxiety I sometimes get when I'm surrounded by too many people.

I once coped with these episodes by working or drinking. Neither was an option on Saturday, so I had to fight through it.

My guess is a lot of you reading this blog have had similar meltdowns. I've been having them for years.

I remember another time maybe 10 years ago when I bailed on a newspaper banquet before it even started. It was one of those times when I had quit drinking cold turkey with no support group. I didn't know how to handle being sober and being one of only a handful of people not drinking.

I was holding a glass of water when my usual hand tremor turned into the full-blown shakes. It was like Ted Striker's "drinking problem." I couldn't raise the glass to my mouth without spilling water everywhere. So I just got the hell out of there.

I jumped in my car and drove over two hours to my home without telling anyone I was leaving, including the hotel. I avoided phone calls from my mother because I was too embarrassed to admit the truth.

I have it easy compared to others. Some have unrelenting anxiety so severe it makes daily living a nightmare. God bless them.

Instead of asking why in the hell a grown man can't just suck it up and deal with it, my wife is usually patient and compassionate.

I'm harder on myself than she or anyone else is. I  get mad at myself and wonder why I can't just be normal.

I don't have many answers, except that I was born with an anxious disposition. That's what one one anxiety specialist told me anyway. He said I've developed some maladaptive coping mechanisms over 40 years-plus years, and I won't be able to fix them overnight.

I'm sure going to try, though. Life isn't supposed to be lived this way. 




  1. But.......you did it! You reacted and responded. Check that episode off; it's done! Perhaps they will get smaller and easier to deal with as time passes. I'm asking God to handle that for you friend. Enjoy today. War Eagle! Cathy

  2. I would not be able to sit in a meeting unless the door was open....or travel in a car unless me or my husband was driving just in case I got that feeling......it seems crazy but I know exactly how you felt. my anxiety is controlled with medication so I am fortunate....but I still will not travel on a plane just in case. and Kathy is right....you did it....coping skills are working :-)

  3. One down and stronger for the next time. You've got the tools. Keep climbing to the top!

  4. Your reaction to your experience will help me the next time I have anxiety on an airplane. Breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth. Focus on things other than myself. Thanks for this.

  5. Yes happy for you to. Just please link to it.

  6. Ann,
    Happy to try and help! We can all use good tips and a boost for our mental health. Take good care!

  7. Mary Margaret StephensonOctober 30, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    Jack, I am sorry for you experience on Saturday. I know all to well how awful panic attacks can be. They are truly from hell. I am very grateful that you were able to work through it and go on to enjoy the day with your family. So many times in these cases it is easier to make like Forrest and run, but you did not. Be proud and give yourself credit for your courage. See, you CAN do it.

    Much Love,
    Mary Margaret

  8. Thanks, Button! I appreciate your encouragement, and I know others do as well.

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