Panic Attacks, Grief, and Fear

I’m still experiencing double vision and unable to read or write very much. Because of the dismissive attitude I’ve encountered about my vision from most eye doctors, I don’t want to see anyone but my favorite eye doctor, and she’s booked out for 3-4 months, so I haven’t seen anyone about this latest development. I’m making do for now by minimizing time spent reading and using Google’s voice dictation for writing.

I think this latest vision issue, along with the fact that the upcoming two-year anniversary of my dead husband’s stroke is on June 7 and the one-year anniversary of his death is on June 19, is contributing to a new wrinkle in my grieving: panic attacks. I had panic attacks for some time 20-30 years ago, always connected to interactions with a particular person. They were bad enough that I would hyperventilate, but because they were so clearly connected to interactions with a particular person, I could predict and prepare for them. What has started happening in the past week is different.

I’ve had two, one during the day and one at night. They were very dramatic, disruptive, and unexpected. Both times, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by a feeling of impending doom, heaviness in my chest, and trouble breathing. That quickly escalated to hyperventilating. I was in a Zoom meeting with very understanding colleagues the first time. The second time, my daughter, who has experienced panic attacks, was with me.

I attended a grief support group meeting over the weekend in which we talked about how the lead-up to difficult anniversaries and milestones is often much more difficult than the anniversary and its aftermath. That was my experience with my wedding anniversary and my dead husband’s birthday. With the stroke and death anniversaries coming up and the added stress of my double vision, I think my brain was overwhelmed and started sending distress signals out.

This TED Talk gives a succinct explanation of the current theory and understanding of panic attacks. Most interesting to me is that the fear of another attack can actually bring on more attacks. After having one at night, which woke me up and made it difficult to go to sleep again, I spent much of the following day dreading what would happen when I tried to go to sleep again. This is exactly the cycle that can cause another one. Once I realized what was happening, I was able to take preventive measures: I did yoga, had a cup of herbal tea, practiced box breathing, and listened to soothing children’s audiobooks.

Meditation made things worse, which surprised me. I’ve been meditating for 30 years and it’s been my go-to method for stress relief for decades. It turns out that emptying my mind just created space for panic. For me, engaging my physical body through movement, breathing, and the sensory experiences of drinking tea and listening to audiobooks seems to help assure my brain that I am not in danger.

I’m experimenting with giving myself permission to have big feelings of fear. That feels scary and overwhelming sometimes, but I think that pushing those feelings away when they come up builds up my panic response to them. Perhaps refusing to allow myself to think about losing my vision completely or being unable to read and write again has trained my brain that those thoughts are dangerous, so when they start to rise up, even in small ways, my brain reacts by panicking. I’m trying to allow those feelings, like I’ve leaned into my feelings of grief. This means engaging very consciously again with meditation teacher Doug Kraft’s “three essential moves”: turning toward, relaxing into, and savoring peace. It’s hard. I don’t want to turn toward my fears about my vision. I want to push them away, but inviting them in and getting to know them is what will make them feel more familiar and less terrifying.

I don’t usually acknowledge my fears about my vision. Before my husband died, it was easy to tell myself that if I went blind, he would take care of me. But I’m on my own now. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted on this blog that I do worry about going blind. Writing that sentence and leaving it there for you to read feels like some major turning toward. I’m not ready to relax into it. Maybe next week.