Anxiety Disorders and Panic Attacks

Alison Sommer graduated from Carleton with a degree in Asian Studies, and now works as an academic technologist at Macalester College. She believes that awareness is the first step to improving problems within mental health care, and will be speaking about anxiety disorders and panic attacks based on her own constantly evolving understanding of her anxiety disorder, OCD. Alison’s greatest loves are her family, hockey and Star Wars.

My first goal here today is not to have a panic attack right on stage.  I have an anxiety disorder called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or OCD. Obsessive Compulsive…I have a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that causes me to become anxious or frightened when something wrong or unexpected happens. Like if somebody sits at my seat at the table.

It also causes intrusive thoughts. These are thoughts that come unbidden to my head about things that I’ve done in the past or things that I might do. Things that could happen by chance or because everybody secretly hates me.

As you might imagine, these intrusive thoughts are really quite anxiety producing. And this anxiety can manifest in different physical and emotional responses, one of which is the panic attack which I’ll be talking about more in depth later.

But, the thing that made me really hyper aware of the effects of my OCD and made me determined to spread awareness about anxiety disorders in general is that my own symptoms were not always this severe.

So, I want to start at the beginning. As long as I can remember, I’ve always been sort of an obsessive-minded child. I would take a thing, good or bad, and roll it over in my head…over and over.

I was also really shy and awkward and I know, especially at Carlton, a lot of you are thinking, “yeah, me too.” Because, you know, there are a lot of shy, awkward people and all of us have our little obsessions. I don’t know if there is a scale for being shy, awkward and obsessive, but I always felt like I was toward the high end of the range.

“Weirdo” and “freak” were terms I readily accepted as a teenager. And when all the other girls my age were really into the Backstreet Boys, I’m dating myself, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I sort of still am. Like, I got in trouble for coming home late for curfew once as teenager and as punishment my parents took away my Star Wars stuff. And I thought that the world had collapsed.

I also had on again/off again issues with anxiety and depression. And, you know, anxiety and depression really go hand-in-hand, like two best friends who like to corner a third person and make them feel like shit. 

So, there I was, this anxious, awkward, obsessive and sometimes depressed girl and that was life. That was my normal.

When I got a little older and started coming out of my shell and meeting people with similar interests to me, like the folks here at the Sci-Fi House at Carlton. Benton House, anyone? Woo.

I started actually opening up and talking to people about my feelings. And I started to realize that there were other people like me that suffered from anxiety and depression. And suddenly I went from feeling, instead of like a freak, I felt like just kind of a normal, anxiety/depression story with a little obsessive behavior thrown in for good measure. And that actually felt pretty cool. So, that was my life.

I also started to get a little help then, I saw my first psychiatrist, got my first meds. And, you know, things were going pretty good. And then I got a really bad concussion while playing hockey. Love the sport, still play it, but it was bad.

That’s when things took a nosedive from me feeling like “normal/runs in the family crazy” to like “scary crazy.” That’s when the intrusive thoughts started getting louder and louder. And it was bad. It was really, really bad. I was angry  all the time. It mostly came out at my husband, but my road rage was also pretty epic.

While I was being an ass to other people, I was also being an ass to myself. I was not eating. I was down to a size zero and that monkey was saying, “you can get skinnier.” I didn’t want to accept that I had a problem. I wanted to feel like I was kicking ass. But, I knew deep down that there was something wrong, because I wasn’t sleeping and my marriage was going through the shitter. But, trying to even think about changing my habits, like, really thinking about changing any of my habits would give me massive anxiety. And this anxiety was leading to panic attacks. Panic attacks are one of the most frightening manifestations of anxiety.

I know if you’ve never had a panic attack, the name sounds kind of lame. We all have those moments of panic, like: “oh, did I leave the oven running” or “my kid just bolted out into the middle of the street.” Or maybe more for you: “I forgot to study for that test.” But, none of these are panic attacks.

The Mayo Clinic’s website says that “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When a panic attacks occurs you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack, or even dying.” That’s a pretty good definition, but what does it really feel like? That’s what I’m going to try to show you.

So, it’s a pretty normal day, but maybe a little bit stressful, like at a performance evaluation for work or packing for vacation. I’m doing something pretty normal and I start to feel “off.” I know something’s not quite right. I’m getting tingly. A tingling numbness creeps up my neck and all over my face, and seeps into my head. I feel dizzy. So, I sit down. Sometimes I think maybe I just didn’t eat enough today, so I grab for some crackers or a candy bar or whatever I have. My head is feeling fuzzy. As I’m sitting there, sometimes I think “oh my gosh, it’s a seizure or heart attack or…” But, I know better. I know it’s a mounting panic attack when my heart starts beating harder, not faster really, just hard. Like the heartbeat in the background of a horror film.

Now I’m getting scared thinking, “no, no, not here. Not now.” Right now, the right medication might help, might bring this crescendo back down and end the panic attack, but sometimes even the right medication doesn’t always help.

I feel off and I want to sit still, but my body just won’t listen, so I pace. I lash out. The tears come now. Broken, dry cries. Weak, angry shrieks break through and my brain is screaming,

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”

Not a real cry, nothing that could be cathartic can come out. It all gets caught in my throat and in my head. Oh…I get angry. Mad at this feeling, myself, everything! I pound my head with my fists. I want to bang it against the floor. I want to smash my skull and make it all end!

Sometimes I do, I just hit myself and I can’t hold back and it feels like relief suddenly. That physical pain, and I crave physical pain: cuts, burns, bruises. And then that scares me even more.

I look up at my shelf of pill bottles and I think, “I could take them all. I could end it right now.” But, I don’t. I don’t. Real tears come now. So sad. Tears. But, now I can lay down. Just wait for it to be over. Eventually, it ends. It always does end.

And I’m still here. And with my sanity coming back, with my head clearing, I’m grateful to still be here and that it always stops eventually.

This is not an easy thing to live with, knowing that it could happen at any moment, any place, at home, at work, at the tattoo parlor…that’s happened.

And not a lot of people talk about it even though a lot of people go through it. When I first posted to my blog about my experiences with panic attacks, I was surprised when people started contacting me from all corners of my life…on the internet, to tell me about their experiences. And to thank me for speaking out and told me I was brave.

It got me thinking. These days everything seems to have an awareness month or a ribbon or some picture you can share on Facebook to spread awareness.

I’ve made this sort of my panic attack awareness effort and now I hope you all know a little bit more about they really feel like.

As for me, my husband did finally get me to see a doctor. It turns out that my anxiety and obsessive tendencies had basically been give steroids by the concussion.

And I was diagnosed with severe OCD and we started the dance of trying to find the right combination of meds and therapy. We’re still figuring it out.

I still have panic attacks, but luckily, thanks to some wonderful people and some magical chemicals, they are fewer and further in between. And blogging about it and talking about it is part of my therapy too.

I’m very blessed to have such a wonderful support structure here in my life. And to have been given these opportunities to talk openly about my anxiety disorder.

40 million adult Americans, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, have anxiety disorders. That’s just over 18% of the population, so chances are you know someone with an anxiety disorder, whether it’s a friend, a colleague, or even yourself. Of the 40 million who have anxiety, 15% of them experience the terror of panic attacks and it’s twice as common in women as in men. 

When I’m having a panic attack, the best thing people can do for me is to just be with me and let me know they’re there for me and will do things I ask that I say I need, whether that’s to open a window, or let me run away from the room, or turn out the lights… none of which you can do on an airplane, by the way, it turns out.

So, if you’re there when someone you know is having a panic attack, it’s hard to breath in the middle of an attack, much less speak, so instead of asking them over and over,

“Are you ok? What’s wrong? Are you ok? What are you panicking about? What can I do? Are you ok? Are you ok?”

Just be there. Let them know you support them and sit with them as they ride out those waves of panic because… you can’t tell a panicking person to calm down. That’s like trying to tell someone with a gaping wound to just stop bleeding.

But, what you can do is let them know you’re there for them. It may make you feel helpless, but your presence is more comforting than you may realize. And then when it’s over, then you can ask what you can do for next time, if anything really.

But, one thing we can all do, is work together to end the stigma surrounding mental health disorders like anxiety, so that everybody who needs help can feel safe in asking for it.

You can help by showing respect to people who seek the aid of therapists, psychiatrists and medications. Instead of telling someone to work harder or worry less, tell them that you’re there for them and that you understand these things can be a struggle.

If you have anxiety, it’s not your fault.

Help is available in many forms. I started getting help by working with my primary care physician, but there are also hotlines and websites such as The Anxiety and Depression Association of America at

In short, if you or someone you know has an anxiety disorder, give help, get help, speak out.

You’re not alone.

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