Guest post by Deborah Bishop
My heart pounded so hard that I half-expected it to burst free from its snug home inside my chest. Beads of perspiration rolled down my flushed face. Was everyone staring at me? I tried to swallow, but could not find a speck of saliva in my parched mouth. Was I about to throw up? Faint? Scream? Had someone placed a plastic bag over my head? Why couldn’t I remember how to breathe?
What was happening to me? A heart attack? Stroke? Seizure?
At the tender age of eleven, I wondered if these feelings were a product of my wild imagination, or had I entered the forbidden zone of insanity? Surely, it was not possible for someone my age to die suddenly, and for no apparent reason. Or…was it?
My first panic attack struck without warning. There I was, sitting in the school auditorium when “WHAM!” I no longer felt part of the group. I was hyper-conscious of myself sitting in a seat, surrounded by other students. I felt closed in. How would I escape, even if I could get my legs to work? I would make a scene. Everyone would stare at me. I would be ridiculed for the rest of my life. I would be the butt of jokes, the target of bullies. I felt detached from my body as I watched myself sitting in that solitary chair, isolated from the rest of humanity.
Although this attack occurred over thirty years ago, the feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations, and terror, are as vivid to me now as they were then. I truly believed that death was imminent. At the very least, I feared the loss of control, and the humiliation that would surely follow. I would never be able to face my friends again. I would have to convince my parents to move. I would never again feel “normal.”
What had felt like an eternity of agony and torment, had actually only lasted a few minutes. Somehow, I was able to force my “paralyzed” legs to move as I stumbled clumsily out of the room and into the hallway. I ran to a nearby restroom and splashed cold water on my face. But, truthfully, the minute I left the auditorium I felt better. My heart had returned to its normal rhythm, my emotions were steady, and the terror had miraculously evaporated.
I determined that I would never again allow myself to feel trapped in a room filled with people. Since sitting in the middle seat in the center row of a large room triggered my first attack, I knew I had to avoid that type of situation for the rest of my life. Of course, an eleven-year old has very little control over her environment, and even less over the circumstances and situations in which she finds herself. So, over the years, I would relive those torturous feelings over and over again.
Not wanting anyone to think me a “freak,” I kept the attacks a secret from friends and family for over ten years. I isolated myself from group activities and found myself withdrawing more and more into an introspective, ever-shrinking world. Whenever possible, I would choose an aisle seat in the back of a room, close to an exit door. But, for those times when I had no choice but to be “trapped” in the middle of a room or row, I would dwell on my fear as I awaited the hateful symptoms.
Although I suffered silently during my teenage years and managed to graduate with honors, I feared this “condition” would put an abrupt end to my dream of an advanced degree. Would I be able to endure four more years of angst?
Fortunately, my desire for a college education outweighed my fear of losing control. I read hundreds of self-books seeking answers, or even a name, for my “condition.” As luck would have it, the term “panic attack” had not yet been coined. Instead, I found words like “neurosis,” “nervous disorder,” and “psychosis.” I could not accept the fact that I was doomed to a life of mental anguish.
During my research, I chanced upon a book on self-hypnosis. It sounded interesting, but after viewing movies that depicted hypnotists as evil control-freaks, such as “Svengali,” and after watching stage hypnotists make people act like chickens, I was, indeed, skeptical.
Nevertheless, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I figured I had nothing to lose. I read as many books as I could on the subject. After scrutinizing hundreds of scientific case studies, I completely changed my mind.
Without hesitation, I made an appointment with a hypnotherapist. Half-expecting to see a man with bushy eyebrows and a thin, handle-bar moustache, I was pleasantly surprised when a soft-spoken, small gentleman with kind eyes called me into his office.
The session began with an interview and an explanation of the hypnotic method. I described my symptoms and how my world was shrinking as I avoided crowded rooms, social interactions, driving on freeways and bridges, and public speaking.
Mr. Thompson quickly assured me that I was not “crazy.” Whew! He went on to explain that I had been experiencing panic attacks, a type of anxiety disorder. Over time, my attacks morphed into social anxiety, claustrophobia, and other phobic conditions. Most importantly, he told me that I was not alone. In fact, thousands, maybe millions, of people shared these same symptoms. The best news? My anxiety and panic attacks were curable.
After the first session, Mr. Thompson taught me self-hypnosis. This included a two-step process. In the privacy of my home, I calmed myself down by breathing deeply and focusing my attention on my breath. I then visualized myself in a crowded room, surrounded by people, feeling happy, self-assured, and symptom-free. I brought the scene to life by utilizing all my senses.
I practiced this technique several times a day, changing the scene to a theater, a classroom, or any other building where I would be “entrapped” for a period of time. With each vision, I imagined feelings of happiness and serenity engulfing me, overtaking all the negativity, all the fear. For more details on how I conquered my panic attacks, click here.
The second part of the process was to learn how to recognize the onset of a panic attack, and then abruptly stop the attack from progressing. The key to this technique, once again, was focused breathing…something that can be done anywhere, at any time. This cleansing breath oxygenates the blood and creates instant relaxation. When I focus all my attention on my breath, I’m not able to conjure up images of myself screaming uncontrollably, or any other destructive-type thoughts. The calmer I felt, the more control I had over my imaginative mind. I had finally broken the vicious panic attack cycle.
I was so impressed by the benefits of hypnosis that, after graduating with degrees in Psychology and English, I attended the prestigious American Institute of Hypnotherapy, and became a certified hypnotherapist. I was fortunate in that I was able to help thousands of people over the years with their problems, just as Mr. Thompson had helped me.
Deborah Bishop offers advice, informative articles, and high-quality hypnosis products through her blog, Time-Out For Moms.