Chemical Stew

Last evening I started feeling a little “flakey” or “off”. These are the terms I often use to describe when I feel a little antsy or anxious. Not full fledged anxiety or panicky, just a shadow of it. Like a little bird tapping on the window – “hello? can I come in?”

I read a couple pages of my panic workbook that I’m continuing to work my way though and it simmered down a little. Then, when I headed to bed I listened to an episode of The Anxiety Coach’s podcast. I went to sleep fine & woke up fine.

Then maybe an hour after waking I started feeling some of my flakiness coming back. It’s really hard for me to describe, but it’s just a “niggle” in the back of my brain. When I notice it, then it comes to the forefront and it can pretty easily start some of the physical symptoms that lead to the panic and anxiety cycle. So I picked up my book again and the pages I’m on happened to be talking about the thought of chemical imbalances.

Dr. Carbonell said that most anxiety and panic clients at some point ask if it’s all related to a chemical imbalance. The anxiety response is a chemical reaction – fight or flight is a flood of chemicals from the amygdala in the brain. But, chicken or egg… is there an imbalance that kicks it off? He says no. It’s a result of conscious or unconscious thoughts triggering the cascade. I have mixed feelings about this.

There was an exercise in the workbook to help prove the hypothesis. You are supposed to  list two situations where you are almost guaranteed to have anxiety or a panic attack. Then you are supposed to list two situations where you will almost definitely not have a panic attack. Then after coming up with these examples, he brings up the question “how do brain chemicals know where you are and what you are doing?”

I see what he is getting at and for people with strongly situational anxiety, this makes perfect sense. Over the past few years though, my anxiety disorder decided to shift to something called “panic disorder”. This is defined as fear of panic. Lovely, huh? I don’t require external cues to panic (although there are a few that help it along) – all I require is my pretty little brain sensing the panic bird tapping at the window. So this exercise didn’t help me at all. Are there situations when I’m almost guaranteed to have a panic attack? Nope. I go through long spans of time with little or no panic reactions. So much so that it’s hard for me to work on it because it feels like a vague bad dream. And other times, when I’m in a “panic cycle” as I describe it, I’m easily triggered. At the worst times, nowhere and no situation is safe. That sucks, let me tell you.

Another reason I’m not sure I agree with the chemical theory (or lack thereof) is that anxiety and panic run in my family – all of the women on both sides of my family.

My dad’s mother – the biggest “worry wart”, is how she was known. But with my life experience I look back and I see she was a very high anxiety person with panic attacks focused on the safety of her children and grandchildren.

My mom’s mother – severe panic attacks about the safety of her children and related to religion

My aunt – panic attacks about many things

My mother – she doesn’t have panic attacks, but she is high anxiety mixed with severe chemical depression.

Sure, anxiety and panic can be learned behavior, just like anything else, but I think there’s an argument for some hereditary links, likely related to some brain chemicals.

My final argument for the suspicion of chemical involvement is after this morning’s round of flakiness cropping up I had it jump to mind – I wonder if my period is coming? Checked my little cycle tracker and sure enough, period due today.

I don’t think a chemical component gives panic a pass – it doesn’t mean I accept it. It just means the chemical stew is hot and ready to go, I just need to be more aware. Recognize it. And do what I can to keep the stew from boiling.

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