Friday, September 16, 2016

Breathing into bags...

This morning, my former shrink posted an excellent video about how to help someone having a panic attack.  The video consisted of tips on assisting someone who is overcome by anxiety, especially if they are in public.

There was a time in my life when I had somewhat frequent panic attacks.  Sometimes they would consist of me simply crying, but other times, they involved hyperventilation.  The one thing the video did not mention was how to help someone who is hyperventilating.  So, in the interest of being helpful, I thought I'd write about that today.

Hyperventilation caused by panic, for those who don't know, is when you get so anxious that your body kicks into overdrive.  You breathe too fast and too deeply and your blood becomes saturated with too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide for your physical needs.  As a result, you feel even more panicky.  You may feel like you can't catch your breath, which may cause you to try even harder and make the problem worse.  You may feel light headed, dizzy, or tingly.  Your heart may beat erratically.  It can be a very scary phenomenon.  Some people think they're having a heart attack, when they're really just panicking.

You can also hyperventilate for physical or medical reasons.  I won't get into those causes so much, because this is a post about anxiety and panic.

Basically, when you hyperventilate, your body is preparing you to flee from danger.  If you don't flee, you have no use for that extra oxygen.  If you're standing in a crowded place and freaking out, you can feel like the world is about to end.  The panic, hyperventilation, and stress of being stared at can make things seem much worse.

There is a very simple trick to help someone who is hyperventilating due to panic.  It's a technique I have used many times and you've probably even heard of it yourself.  All you have to do is get a paper bag and have the hyperventilating person breathe into it repeatedly, as calmly as they can.  The paper bag forces the person to breathe in more carbon dioxide and less oxygen.  As the extra oxygen leaves the blood, the hyperventilating person will start to feel better.  The reason I'm writing about this is because I've had many instances of hyperventilating in front of people, most of whom had no idea what to do to help me.

I remember hyperventilating once in 1997, when I lived in Armenia.  I came home late one night to find my landlady and her father waiting for me.  The landlady had been living in Budapest, going to a university.  She'd come home on a school break, knowing that my Peace Corps service was ending and I was going to be vacating the apartment.

My landlady and her dad had let themselves into the apartment and were waiting to ambush me.  "Dad" was smoking a cigarette.  They confronted me for "stiffing" them on a month's rent, which I didn't do.  They were really just trying to squeeze me for another month.

I reacted rather dramatically.  First, the tears came.  Then I started to panic.  The rapid breathing started and I was soon in a bad way.  They became uncomfortable and left.  I immediately called the Peace Corps and put into place help from being screwed over as I moved out of that apartment.  I knew that if they had the balls to be waiting for me in the apartment on a Friday night, they would likely harass me as I vacated it.  I wasn't going to tolerate that.  The landlady had worked for the Peace Corps, so they knew her.  Both her former boss and another Armenian were there on my last day in the apartment to make sure they let me go without incident.

In retrospect, I think my landlady and her dad thought I would be intimidated by them.  They figured I had plenty of money (I didn't, which was one reason why I was so panicked), knew I was sensitive, and thought I'd pay them to get them to leave me alone.  They knew I was going to be leaving the country soon and were probably worried about their meal ticket, since I was paying much more than any Armenian would pay for that particular dwelling.  They knew I'd be upset that they were accusing me of "stealing" from them, even though every month on the first, landlady's father would show up without fail and collect the rent.  I didn't have receipts because they didn't do receipts back in those days.  But I did keep a daily journal and I had written down the days he came.  I also had records of collecting the rent money, though they accused me of simply spending it rather than paying them.  It was total bullshit and I was furious that they were trying to take advantage of me in that way.

To be honest, at that time I was also fed up with Armenia and Armenians, who didn't seem to understand that I had come to their country to be of service.  Now that I'm older, I can see that my viewpoint was naive and immature.  But twenty years ago, I suddenly got very jaded by what I felt was ungratefulness on the part of people in my host country.  I had given them two years of my life and felt that those two years had been a waste of time.  I know now that they weren't a waste at all... but in 1997, it sure felt that way.  I think that contributed to the rather aggressive way I reacted to my landlady's final insult to me as I was preparing to leave Armenia.

Landlady was a pretty toxic person-- this was later confirmed by her former boss, who told me she'd been hell to work with-- and she probably assumed I was a weak person she could bully.  She misjudged me.  She knew that in those days, I was easily upset by things and cried often.  But she was wrong about me.  A person who cries a lot and panics isn't necessarily weak or malleable.  Like a lot of people, she made the big mistake of assuming that I'm weaker and dumber than I really am.

Of course, I got so angry at them for violating my privacy (landlady and son were also coming into the apartment while I was not home and stealing my food and leaving messes) that I went on a rampage and spread the word about what shitty people they were.  I'd be surprised if any other American rented that place in the months after I left.  I trashed her to every American I could find.  I was on a mission to see that she never made another dime off an American, at least within the near future.  I was really pissed.  I would describe my anger as "hornet like".

I remember my last weeks in Armenia, I was half crazy with mental illness... depression, anxiety, and just flat out stress.  It was not a good time to be fucking with me.  I think my landlady was very surprised by how I handled her.  Like Bill's ex wife, she figured I was a pushover and thought she could predict how I would react.  She was dead wrong.  I went on a single minded mission to prove that to her.  I was fueled by the energy that comes from being angry and fed up.

At the time, I was pretty stressed out over a lot of things.  I was about to finish my service and embark on a month's trip around Europe, largely on my own.  I looked forward to the trip, but worried about spending the money and later meeting up with one of my sisters, who is even crazier than I was back then.  I was right to be worried about traveling with my sister.  We did have several moments of high drama on that trip.

I was clinically depressed.  I worried about what I would do when I got back to the States.  I knew I'd have to move in with my parents and that thought made me very upset.  As it was, my dad ended up going into rehab for alcoholism the day after I got home.  That was the beginning of two rather hellish and stressful years for me that ultimately ended in triumph, largely due to my wonderful former shrink who has since become a friend.  I can truthfully say that I'm a totally different person now than I was back in the late 1990s.

Here's another embarrassing hyperventilation story.  Back in 2000, I was working as a graduate assistant at South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control.  My boss was reprimanding me because someone got upset about an email I sent.  In this case, I think the person who got upset was totally overreacting.  She thought I had been disrespectful to her, when I was really just cracking a joke.  In retrospect, it was a pretty stupid situation that got blown way out of proportion.

During that time in my life, I was finally being treated for depression and anxiety.  I took medications to help regulate my moods.  I was sitting there across from my boss who was chastising me and I suddenly felt panicked.  I had a major meltdown in front of her.  It was humiliating.

I asked her for a paper bag because I started hyperventilating.  I must have blanched, because she thought I was going to throw up.  The funny thing was, she happened to be a nurse.  When I asked for a bag, she brought me a trash can.  I said, "No, I need a bag to breathe into."  Actually, I probably yelled it, and likely because I was panicking.

She got me a bag and I started breathing in and out of it.  Slowly, my heart stopped racing and I was able to calm down.  Then I explained to my boss that my email was really not intended to be disrespectful.  I was very surprised at the recipient's response and it upset me that she thought I was being rude to her.  That had not been my intention at all.  My boss was, fortunately, a very kind lady and was understanding.  I apologized for the miscommunication and the meltdown and that was that.

Later, I told my psychiatrist about the attack and he prescribed Klonopin.  I used it for awhile, but it did nothing for me.  In fact, I don't think I even finished the bottle.  I remember being surprised that it was a drug people commonly abuse.  Fortunately, my issues with hyperventilation mostly went away once I became "The Overeducated Housewife".  ;-)

Bill has also experienced panic attacks.  His were frequent when he was a young man finishing college and waiting to enter the Army.  He told me he once had an attack while he was driving and had to pull over.  He even went to the emergency room because he thought he was having a heart attack.  If you don't know what hyperventilation is, it can be terrifying the first time it happens.

Before my last panic attack, I remember hyperventilating most often when I was fighting with my parents.  They would gang up on me and I would feel like I was under attack.  I'd get overwhelmed.  They'd hand me a paper bag and keep fighting with me.

My regular panic attacks and crying jags finally ceased about thirteen years ago.  It was when I finally decided I wasn't going to let other people control me or tell me what to do.  I think a real watershed moment was over Christmas 2003 (an incident I have written about way too many times to rehash).  Long story short, I made the decision not to stick around for an epic temper tantrum launched by my sister-- the same one who had traveled through Europe with me and got me to walk on eggshells for two weeks.  She threw a huge fit and tried to put all the blame on me for her behavior.  Bill and I simply got in the car and left the scene.  It was scary and traumatic, but ultimately the healthiest and best thing I could have done for myself.  Taking that simple step of walking away literally changed my life.  It was like I found the key to my own sanity.

I realized at that point that I am an adult in control.  I can walk away when things get to be too much for me.  I can say no to situations that will cause me too much stress.  I don't have to be traumatized to the point at which I start to panic.  It was only when I came to those realizations that those terrifying hyperventilation episodes finally stopped for good... or, at least, for now.

A good video about hyperventilation.


  1. Hyperventilation attacks are certainly scary. Mine always started out as hyperventilation, then morphed into asthma attacks. I don't have problems with asthma unless there;s an allergic situation (I'm highly allergic to chalk dust and to goats; I'm not sure what else), sometime accompanying an upper respiratory infection, or when I become extremely upset. I rarely have them anymore, but I carry a rescuer inhaler. If it' a hyperventilation thing i have to breather into paper bag to keep from passing out, but it invariably turn to asthma. Now that feel more in control of my circumstances, it seems to help ward them off. i would like to hope it will never again happen to me, but I probably will not be so lucky.

    It would be frightening to be fighting over rent owed (when you didn't owe it) in a foreign land where a language other than English was the primary language, Those people probably tried to take advantage of foreigners whenever they could.

    1. Well, it was at a time when there weren't many foreigners. I think they just thought they could get over with me. It was an infuriating situation, though. However, at least that time, hyperventilating got them to go away.

      I don't remember the last time I hyperventilated. It's been a long time. I also haven't fainted in years, though I used to do that fairly often.


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