PANIC ATTACK? WE’RE NOT CRAZY by Art Smukler MD

About fifteen years ago, on a return flight from Japan, I started to have this very strange sensation that the roof of the plane was too low, and that the walls of the plane seemed to be closing in. I took a deep breath, looked out the window at the night sky, and tried to relax. Maybe I was just overtired?

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked. “You’re sweating.”

“Nothing. Maybe just a little warm.” I got up out of my seat, and as I walked towards the bathroom I mopped my forehead and pulled my shirt away from my chest. I was drenched! What is going on? I wondered. This is ridiculous. I was bathed in sweat! In addition,  I couldn’t catch my breath. With ten hours left to go in the flight, I wondered how I could possibly make it.

I washed my face and forced myself to take deep breaths. This was absolutely insane. Was I having a silent heart attack? How could that be? I was healthy and strong. There was no pain anywhere. Was I going crazy?

I left the bathroom and spent the next hour walking up and down the narrow aisle. There was no way I was getting back in that tiny, claustrophobic seat! No way! Ever!

I walked and walked and told my wife and friends that I needed to stretch. They looked at me quizzically. I looked back at them and shrugged.

Nothing made any sense. Why was I acting this way? What was happening to me? I walked and I thought and I walked and thought and finally it hit me. I WAS HAVING A PANIC ATTACK. The psychiatrist was falling apart and going crazy himself.

Crazy? Was this really happening? Was I going crazy? No! That’s ridiculous. I knew that wasn’t the case. But why, why now have these symptoms? I’d flown all over the world and it never happened before. Maybe too much coffee? Too little sleep? Going back to the stress of everyday life after a wonderful vacation?

It could be… But I still couldn’t go back to that disgusting seat! Not yet. I wandered to the back of the plane and stood in the area where the flight attendants served meals. Eventually, I asked a young woman for a glass of water. “You okay?” she asked.

“Actually I’m feeling somewhat claustrophobic. It never happened before.”

She smiled kindly. “That happens a lot. It’s more common than people know.”

“Really?”

“I haven’t been doing this for all that long, and I’ve seen it happen at least a dozen times.”

I nodded.

She smiled and squeezed my arm. “You’ll be fine. It goes away.”

I walked the aisle for another twenty minutes and finally sat down. The panicky feeling was still there, but not so bad. What had just happened? Why would the reassurance of a young woman less than half my age be so comforting?  As I thought about it, the whirring of the engines, and the gentle rocking lulled me to sleep. The last thing I remembered thinking was how she said, “You’ll be fine. It goes away.”

That’s a lot of what happens in our lives. Something triggers our autonomic nervous system and we are clueless as to what’s happened. When someone can legitimately reassure us, all the hormones and excited neurons can go back to normal and we can relax again.

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About artsmuklermd

Award Winning Novelist & Psychiatrist --- Like psychological novels? Check out Chasing Backwards, a psychological mystery, Skin Dance, a mystery, and The Man with a Microphone n his Ear... Dr. Smukler has won the prestigious Golden Ear Award for excellence in teaching at Harbor-UCLA Medical center and excellence in writing fiction at The Santa Barbara Writers Conference. All books are available as ebooks and paperbacks. You can find them at amazon.com/author/arthursmukler or https://artsmuklermd.com/
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6 Responses to PANIC ATTACK? WE’RE NOT CRAZY by Art Smukler MD

  1. A wonderful description of a panic attack. What’s interesting to me is that only a person with a genetic predisposition will experience overwhelming stress as a panic attack. Others who are equally stressed(anxious) will presumably suffer in a less dramatic way.

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  2. curiosity14 says:

    Sheesh! Feeling uncomfortable while packed into a plane like a bunch of sardines? I think you were having an attack of sanity!! Or if you were female, menopause!

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  3. Thanks for this post. And as stated in another comment, it’s nice to know that mental health professionals have had panic attacks too. About three years ago, I had my first panic attack driving home from another city. Funny… I thought I was coming down with the flu. I’ve learned quite a bit about them and what my triggers are! Yay!

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  4. Nice post, Art. It’s good to hear that mental health professionals can suffer the same inexplicable weaknesses as the rest of the population. I think the scariest thing about panic attacks is when you cannot think of any reason for them. My ex used to have them, and we thought he was having a heart attack. After a couple of episodes with 911, they finally diagnosed panic attacks. He was upset at the diagnosis, but it was a relief to me to know what was going on.

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  5. Linda says:

    I had one on the 405 freeway last week and it was an awful feeling. It helps knowing what a panic attack is so that you can breathe through it. I wasn’t as lucky as you. I was alone. As you experienced, the feeling does go away but it is scary when it is happening. Thanks for the help in understanding it.

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  6. Lucille Force says:

    Excellent. I can totally relate to this as I am sure others can, too. Thanks for sharing.

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