Some of the most frightening moments I’ve had during long years of depression were not those of despairing mood or even suicidal thinking. Instead, they were the times of panic when I’d feel yanked into a wind tunnel, no hold on anything, air sucked out of my lungs, my body fired into emptiness. Most often that happened when I suddenly found myself at a place I couldn’t recognize, with no idea how I’d gotten there or how I would get back to a familiar spot.
But it could also happen when ordinary sounds suddenly shouted and threatened, pulling out the deepest fear in my brain. At its worst, every sound hit like the crashing metal and shattering glass of a car wreck. It was the powerful noise of panic.
One of those moments started simply enough after I jostled my way into a busy elevator in the office building where I worked. The last person rushed to the closing doors and shoved his arm in to push them apart. They lurched back to the sides with unusual force, or so it seemed to me. The sound of that impact pounded my hearing. Angry doors, I thought, punching the wall.
After the thud of hitting the ground floor, the doors flung open with the same force to let us out. I felt pushed with the half dozen people around me through the propped open front doors into the baking street. The heat was intense that day. The light was glaring, and everything sounded brassy.
As I started walking the few blocks to get to a business meeting, I felt the hyper-sensitivity to sound I can get with a migraine. I hoped this wasn’t the beginning of one of those since the throbbing pain and nausea would knock me out for the rest of the day. But that was not the pain starting to consume me. It came from the street, cutting its way into my head.
Each sound hit me like a blow – a squeal of brakes, a honking horn, a friendly shout across the street, everything sharper, twice as loud as it should be. The roar of that street noise grew steadily louder, cracking the air with tiny detonations – even the sunlight was loud in my head.
People passing me on the sidewalk looked strange and threatening. I was sure every glance in my direction was fierce with contempt. I seemed to hear their angry thoughts like shouted insults. Nothing made sense. I was in a hurricane of noise, terrified by its force from all sides.
I walked as fast and hard as I could but my legs wanted to run in four directions at once. I was panicked that I’d be trapped, my heart was pounding, it was hard to breathe. I had to get away, yet I knew I couldn’t run from it.
All I could do was try to pound this thing out of me in furious marching down endless blocks. But finally, and for no reason, the intensity of noise began to lessen. Sounds slipped back into their rightful places, populating the street outside me once again. That jackhammer over there thudding into the pavement, the car braking suddenly, people chatting as I passed. Each sound resumed its accustomed meaning and location. I could feel my chest working hard and listened happily to the simple intake and outrush of breath. That was me, still in working order.
So that chaos of sound disappeared after a few horrible minutes, but it left me changed. Here was something new that I had never experienced, could never tolerate, something that had crept past all my defenses – and in the middle of the day! Could it happen again? It was the kind of thing I might read about in a case history – safely distant, someone else’s particular torture. But it wasn’t remote; it had directly invaded my brain.
That overpowering noise can twist every mental pattern, cut all perception loose from its mooring. The torrent of sounds and sights disorients each moment, leaving nothing firm to hold to, no shape I can recognize , only a din of color, motion, threateningly near, whips of sensation, each small pain magnified in intensity because each is experienced for the first time as part of a shriek-like collision.
In sudden panic, there is a flailing to grab onto something familiar, but nothing stays put, no memory holds, nothing sticks. There is only the constant stress of assault, a futile striking back, a lunge to escape. All I can do is make a desperate run, but there is nowhere to run.
I understood in a way I hadn’t before that there are mental forces capable of rushing people to self-destruction for the only relief they can find. So – what can I do? How do I fight this if it should return? At least I know now that it can happen to me. When I hear it coming on, when common sounds stab into awareness, I can tell myself, this is no stranger, I’ve heard it before. I know it’s a symptom. I know it will pass.
Image Credit Some Rights Reserved by Peter H. Rassmann
Your words paint the picture perfectly. At times I get like this, but more often it’s to a lesser extent that I call “overstimulation.” I focus on my breathing, take it slowly, and make sure I get the quiet I long for later.
Hi, Meredith –
That’s true for me as well. Most of the time serious anxiety, even a panic attack, doesn’t go to this extreme. I couldn’t possibly have survived if I’d frequently had this sort of thundering cacophony in my head. Focusing on breath is so powerful. It helps me to think of “overstimulation” as intense energy on the loose, flailing with no goal or purpose. Trying to get centered through the body is the best way I know to focus it.
Thanks for bringing that out.
When this kind of panic begins to sit on my chest like a heart attack about to happen, I play a word game with myself. You hear a lot about “emotional intelligence” lately. So this game is a way to approach emotional intelligence. Panic can hit any and everywhere, so physically intimidating you really fear you might die. Me? I feel my pulse, make sure I am breathing, then I start the word game. I take any letter of the alphabet. “D” for example. I first name 20 words beginning with that letter that describe how I am feeling at that moment — usually words with a negative connotation. Despair. Dread. Diabolical. Diatribe. Drifting. And so forth. Then I make a mental (or written) list of 20 words beginning with “D” that are positive that I would like to be feeling at that same moment. For example, Discerning. Delighted. Disciplined. Diaphanous. Delicious.
By the time I get through these 40 words, I have plumbed the depths of both negative and positive images and feelings…and I have distracted myself from the panic and it is gone. And after listing the 20 pleasant or more desirable ideas I usually begin to turn from the negative feelings toward the positive feelings. And it is so much fun to me (although admittedly not to everyone) I sometimes do it for negative events other than panic. Like anxiety or depression.
And I guess if your vocabulary isn’t up to it, look up some up. Or think of the names of celebrities or characters in books or movies who have been more positive or negative. You come up with your own plan.