After 70 crazy years: Now I get the panic attacks?

My life finally calms down, so I'm filled with anxiety!

Published October 3, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was born in 1939 so that tells you how old I am. My life has been a series of jumping off bridges. I left for France at a time when girls wore crinolines and sex was not for "girls like me," and within a year was pregnant, married and completely estranged from my family in the U.S.

Several years and two children later, my life was rocked by discovering my husband's affair with another woman (from Hollywood, to boot), and for the next 12 years I juggled work, kids, betrayal and, finally, adultery. Exit husband, and another life.

Two years of work, kids, chaotic love life and hard drinking, and voilà! I married another Frenchman. Time went on, the kids grew up, and this relationship soured as well. By the time I was 50 my marriage was in tatters, I lived out in the country with all the accouterments of the good life (golf, horse, lovely home) but still I was desperately unhappy because of the total hollowness of my personal life.

Flash forward -- this is too long. Twenty years later, I'm now 70, and I love my third (and last) husband like crazy. We have a great life in the Southwest of the U.S., and I have, truly, everything I want and need.

And now, panic attacks. Completely out of the blue I find myself in the throes of full-blown panic attacks. My physician prescribed medication, which usually works, but small things can set me off. I went through four decades of roller-coaster rides in France, and never once had anything close to a panic attack. Now everything is -- at least to me -- hunky-dory and I am getting close to thinking I'm losing my mind.

Any ideas? Any hope for me?

Crazy Old Lady 

Dear Crazy Old Lady,

There is lots of hope for you, and I have lots of ideas. My main hope for you is that you will treat these panic attacks as a sign that you have begun a new phase of life.

No longer are you primarily coping with life's stresses and solving its problems. Your new task is to understand why you have been doing all these things and what it has meant.

In fact, this new phase of life has already begun. It is knocking at your door. That's what these panic attacks are about, if you ask me. They are a direct sign that you now must become aware of what is taking place in your unconscious.

But I'm not a doctor so before we go any further, let me say this:

You were wise to see your doctor about this. Continue your treatment with your doctor. But do not stop there. Ask for a referral to a specialist in panic and anxiety -- a good specialist, the best specialist that can be found. Also, find a meditation practice that works for you, and begin some kind of calming physical discipline such as yoga or tai chi.

You will need these technologies to keep you centered and whole as you begin to reexperience your life story.

You say your life up till now has been a series of jumping off bridges. You've had periodic emotional upsets, highs and lows, peak experiences, strong emotions: a life of intense conflict, fear and risk taking.

Now that your life has calmed down, you find it strange that you are having these panic attacks. Why now? But as I said, it makes perfect sense to me.

Think about the habits of survival you have developed over the years. For most of your life you have been responding to crises with an elevated heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, and the release of stress hormones. Your body is used to doing this. It has gotten you through many stressful challenges. These survival responses were needed then. But now you are safe. You can let some of them go. Your war is over. In this new period of calm, it is natural that old traumas would come to the surface. Let them come. Greet them as old friends. Your memories of how you got through some very difficult, tempestuous times can come to your aid now. You can befriend those memories. You can see how they have made your life as rich as it is. And you can let them go. You do not need to repeat those episodes. You have survived all that. You can relax now.

What these panic attacks are telling you, I think, is that your life of jumping off cliffs is over. It is time to begin accepting rather than shaping. So whatever you have been fighting, stop fighting it. Whatever you have been trying to keep out, let it in. Whatever muscle you have been holding tight, let it loose. Whatever you have not been feeling, go ahead and feel it. Breathe deeply and feel it. This is all for you. This is your life coming back to you.

Make friends with your trauma. Make friends with it so you do not have to live in fear of it. Slow down and appreciate all you have put yourself through. Now you can appreciate that the body is fragile, and you can treat yourself with more gentleness. You can let yourself slow down and breathe.

As you go through your daily life in the months to come, notice when your breathing and heart rate increase. These may be clues that you are responding to things in the environment or remembering things you had not thought of for years. Things from your past are hovering on the periphery of your mind. Calm yourself. Pay attention to these things. They will reward you. Old traumas, hurts, angers and fears want to be welcomed into your life.

Some things that come up are things that we need to talk about because we need to stop fighting them. But they are not things that we can talk about with the people in our lives. Those are the kind of things we talk about with a therapist. They are simply phenomena that need to be dealt with. They don't define us. They are just things that happened that stuck with us, that keep coming up. As long as we keep fighting them, they keep coming up.

Only when we release them do they stop bothering us. So along with medical treatment, meditation and a review of your dietary habits, with especial attention to your use of caffeine and alcohol, find a talented, compassionate therapist who can help you become aware of the various little voices and memories hovering about you like bees, and help you become at peace with them. 

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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