Back pain and panic attacks

Mental health and physical health can be intimately connected, as I found out when I had my first personal exposure to a mental health crisis.

Note: This is part of a series describing my story discovering mental health.


Before the summer of 2018, I had no personal experience with mental health challenges, and knew very little. I had periodically felt stressed and overwhelmed in my life, but I had never gotten help, and didn’t know what help was available. All of that was about to change, but it came through the path of physical experiences.

Our family went on an interesting journey in terms of housing, which ended up playing a large part in this experience. We were living in Provo, Utah, and had started thinking about moving when we got a call from a cousin who was about to rent out their house 130 miles north of us. Within a couple of weeks, we moved up there, planning to stay for a year or two. Around six months later, we heard that our cousin was planning to move back and we needed to find another place to live. We moved in with family for a few months while we looked for our next place, and made some good friends. We finally settled in Lehi, Utah, just south of Salt Lake City in the spring of 2018.

First chiropractor experience

On a warm summer morning, I was sitting at my desk and reached up to stretch when I felt a twinge in my back. I would not say that I have a particularly high pain tolerance, and this nearly took my breath away. I had experienced similar situations before, so I tried to wait it out for a few days. When the pain had not decreased, I scheduled an appointment with our on-site massage and manual therapist at work, which seemed to help a bit. We happened to get together with some friends that we made during our short time living with family and mentioned my back pain, and found out that our friend’s cousin is a chiropractor in Lehi. I had never seen a chiropractor, but with a personal recommendation, I made my first appointment.

One of my favorite parts of my early experience at the chiropractor was taking a scan of my body, which measured three things—nerve response, muscle response, and heart response, which is the best indicator of handling stress well. Overall, I had a score of 70 out of 100. As I continued to meet with him, I started making adjustments to my workstation and posture to improve my health, and found relief from the back pain.

Deteriorated stress response

A couple months later, I got rescanned and interestingly, the morning I got the results, I tweaked something in my back again, in almost the same spot. When I met with the chiropractor, I found out that I had improved in both of the physical measures, but my stress response had gone down significantly, and I was at a 64 overall. As he talked with me, he asked how things were going, and I told him that a decreased stress response made sense.

There were a number of stressors that had hit all at once. I accepted a new volunteer position in my church that I had never done before and overwhelmed me to some degree. I was asked to be the mobile manager at work, which was a direction change from where I thought I was going to take my career. And two months after moving into our new house, our landlord was sued by the H.O.A. for violating a new rule they had about home occupancy before renting. I either had to move to a new house with my nursing wife and six kids, or buy the house we lived in. On top of all that, the air conditioner broke, and the kids were sleeping outside on the trampoline because it was too hot in the house.

Onset of panic attacks

Amidst all this turmoil, my wife tried to discuss something with me that I had no framework to understand. She was worried about me having some kind of breakdown, and wanted to make adjustments to our lives to simplify and avoid that. I wrote at the time in my journal:

I think that before this last week, I had never really considered the possibility that I could have something like that. That feels fragile to me, and I’ve never been fragile before. But I think that I need to be honest and realistic about the situations that are facing me and us right now, and acknowledge that I need to take some steps to prevent any problems.

Thanks to my journal, I know the day of my first panic attack: July 19, 2018. My morning routine was thrown off by kids waking up earlier than I had planned, and I was irritable with my wife. She tried to discuss it with me, and I said I didn’t have time to talk and needed to get to the chiropractor, and then something snapped. I curled up on the bed in the room sobbing uncontrollably. My wife came and sat by me as she realized something serious was happening. I was sobbing, and I remember telling her in fear, “I can’t stop. I can’t stop.” I had never felt such a total lack of control.

I left straight from that experience to a chiropractor appointment, and after it was over, I told him that I was not doing well and asked if he could refer me to a therapist or recommend someone. He told me about someone that he knew, and I texted her that day. She got back to me that she was full, but thought she might open up around September. I told her that I needed something sooner. What I really meant was that I wanted to get in somewhere that day! I had no real sense of how these things usually take.

Conclusion

Over the next little while, I continued to have occasional panic attacks. I still had no language for them, and they seemed huge and scary. Looking back, it is interesting to me that my introduction to mental health came in the form of physical experiences. It is easy for us to forget how integrated our bodies are. Our brains are just another organ, and like others in our body, they can malfunction at times.

In the next installment of my story, I look forward to continuing with my early attempts at trying out therapy.

Note: This is part of a series describing my story discovering mental health.

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