Stress, Sleeplessness and the Panic Attack

I think back on my return to work and wonder why I felt compelled to go back so soon.  I think I so desperately needed structure in my life that I pinned all of my hopes on getting that structure from the workplace.  I believed that the sooner I got back to work the sooner I could regain control of my life and re-establish routine.  Last week was my first week back and I worked three half days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  Monday went relatively well, I was able to slide in and out of the building without being noticed, or at least I think I was.  So, in my mind, a bit of a success.

Wednesday, like Monday, went well.  In general, people were giving me my space, there was lots of work to do.  It was what I thought I needed, a purpose for being. Perhaps I was making progress after all. On my drive home from work I remember thinking, ‘Okay, so far so good.  Two days down, things are going to be okay.’  From my workplace to my house is a short drive, no major highways to travel on, about 12 – 15 minutes depending on the day.  At the only major intersection I have to cross on my way home, I had an anxiety attack.

The traffic lights in my lane had turned red and I had to stop.  I was the first car at the intersection waiting to cross.  Suddenly, with no warning, I panicked that I wouldn’t be able to keep my foot on the brake pedal and that I would drive into traffic before the light changed.  It felt like I had no control over my actions.  Everything seemed to be closing in around me, I was being pinned down to my seat.  I had the sensation of my head going forward while my spine seemed to lift, my arms and legs felt unattached to my body – there but not there, my chest felt tight and there was a tingling all down my back.

I had an overwhelming compulsion to move, I had to move. I felt my anxiety intensifying with every millisecond that the light remained red.  The thoughts in my head were out of control, completely irrational.  I needed to distract myself from my own mind.  I turned up the radio and sang to the song that was on.  I recited the alphabet out loud. I was in full blown recovery mode, trying anything to override the panic that was filling my mind, to refocus on what and where I was.

Needless to say, I made it across the intersection. After a few minutes in a parking lot to collect my thoughts (while I recited the alphabet as well as the 5 times table) and regain control of my subconscious mind, I got back on the road.  I took side roads and minimized the number of stops that I had to make, deciding that a stop sign was a better alternative to a stop light since it seemed that when I had to stop my vehicle the feeling of loss of control would well up again.

I know that this incident was the culmination of a lot of different things.  All the stress, sadness, tension, pressure, fear and exhaustion of the last few weeks had put me into a tailspin.  Grief has profound effects on an individual and, like it or not, the body can only take so much before it starts to break down.  Although my return to work was inevitable, it seems that my body was sending me a message that I may have taken on too much too soon.