When I was recovering from cancer treatments I developed panic attacks. The first one I had was in the hospital after my surgery. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath, but I knew what was happening. I buzzed for a nurse and she gently chatted with me as I took deep breaths. I thought, well this is a normal reaction to a stressful situation!
The next one was during my first chemo treatment and I wrote about it here, in this blog. I had read about possible adverse side effects and, as the infusion entered the port in my chest, I thought about what I had read… and just having the thoughts brought about the feeling of swelling in my throat and chest. I was sure I was dying! Again, the nurses checked and calmed me and within a couple of minutes I knew I was okay.
The next series of panic feelings were more insidious. I started to believe that there was something growing in my throat.
I actually asked a doctor to look down my throat and see if there was anything there. She seemed surprised and looked and of course found nothing.
At night when I lay down I could feel this thing in my throat choking me and making it hard to breathe and I had to prop myself up on a number of pillows to try to get some sleep. I had times during the day when I would be overcome by fear and anxiety and struggle to catch my breath, feeling this thing in my throat blocking my airway.
I was vacillating between hyperarousal and hypoarousal at this time, and wasn’t very rational or logical, so it took me a few sessions with a psychologist to really understand what was happening.
This is the very definition of how trauma lives in the body.
I had just had the cancerous thing cut out and endured months of treatments to ensure it wouldn’t return. Rationally I knew that. I was constantly being scanned and examined.
But my body hadn’t returned from the death fear space.
The body and the brain and the nervous system all work together to protect us and keep us safe. We are wired for that. However, sometimes when an individual goes through a painful physical, emotional or psychological event or series of events, they can become “stuck” in the memory of that pain and fear.
Sometimes these stuck memories, emotions or sensations manifest physically. We cannot express or make sense of our emotional and psychological response to pain or trauma, or we dissociate or repress it or become overly cognitive about it and try to reason our way out of it, and we get physically ill or feel physical symptoms.
Perhaps the sensation in my throat was my body’s memory of the intubation tube that was placed there for the nine hours or so that I was in surgery. I don’t try to overanalyze the why – I just know that as I began to recognize those throat feelings as a stuck memory from a difficult experience I developed some resources to help dissolve them.
Deep breathing and grounding helped. Visualizing a healing light spreading down through my body and dissolving the thing in my throat helped. But I needed something to take me quickly out of the panic when it started to come on.
Knowing rationally (most of the time) that I didn’t have something growing in my throat, I imagined what different people would say to me if they knew how I was feeling. The face of an elderly, very practical relative popped into my head, and I distinctly heard her say, “Stop this foolishness.”
The combination of breathwork and visualization helped to bring on the cascade of the parasympathetic nervous system and induce calm. And loudly saying, “Stop this foolishness!” helped me to laugh my way out of the uncomfortable feeling of something in my throat whenever it started to appear.
It was hard work to face these uncomfortable feelings. I had to use my mind, my brain and my body to chip away at this stuckness, which was rooted in my response to medical trauma. And the first step was understanding that the things I was feeling in my body were not directly related to a medical condition in my throat.
In next week’s post in the trauma series I plan to continue this discussion of mind / body dualism in the Western tradition and its devastating impact on our wellness.
Thank-you, as always, dear reader for your interest.
Oh, and if you want to read about my chemo panic attack here’s the link to that post from 2019: