How to Manage a Panic Attack After a Pulmonary Embolism

panick attack cover

It was Valentine’s weekend and I couldn’t be more excited for a weekend away – away from home, away from phones, away from the computer, away from social media – in the hills of Southern Ohio with my husband. Being nearly ever-present online and on my blog, I crave time away from technology and even connectedness to some extent and always eagerly await our next weekend getaway from the city. The time away is my chance to relax, rejuvenate and reconnect with myself, my goals, my husband and even my mission here at BCRN.

This particular weekend, an impending snowstorm made the prospect of getting away even better, and I was only slightly concerned about the weather as we made the hour and a half drive south to our weekend home – a castle-themed bed and breakfast in the middle of the forest. It was perfectly romantic and perfectly situated in the middle of a valley with no cell phone service, no TV and no internet. Just how I wanted it.


I was hungry by the time we got there and eager to drop off our gear at the cabin before making the short drive back to the castle for dinner at the pub, which we did in a matter of minutes, and just as snow started to fall into the valley, settling on the roads in crystal drifts. It was cold outside and the castle staff requested that we leave water running to prevent the pipes from bursting. I was thankful for my wool sweater, scarf and snow boots as I got back in the passenger seat and we set out to begin our ascent to a what I hoped would be a warm dinner and cold beer.

We made it up and over the first small dip in the road without any issue. We were driving pretty swiftly – but not swiftly enough – up the first hill when the car slid to a stop just a few feet from the top, right before the second, much larger hill. My heart started pounding and I had an immediate need to get out of the car as quickly as possible. To our left was a steep ravine leading into the near-blackness of the forest floor far below. Night was settling in the valley faster than I had realized. The car slid sideways to the left as my husband tried to brake, downshift, speed up – nothing worked on the icy gravel. The car slid to a stop – the back wheel just over the edge of the ravine, spinning in the dirt. I bolted from the car, standing in the middle of the road with my heart pounding. Thoughts began flooding my mind – I was going to fall over a cliff (why does that keep happening to me) and bleed to death right then and there. The car was going to roll over me and again, I was going to bleed to death right there. If I didn’t bleed to death, I would freeze to death first. In fact, if I didn’t bleed to death or freeze to death, I was probably going to have another pulmonary embolism at any moment. Worst of all, there was no cell phone reception to call for help. No 911. No hope. Out of control, my thoughts spiraled as my husband tried to use the floor mats to gain more traction. No luck. The car precariously balanced on the edge of nothing, he decided the best thing to do was to walk the rest of the way to the castle and get help.

Good idea, I thought, get out of here and do something productive . I took off after him, rounding the corner into an immediate incline of the second, much larger hill. Ten steps and I was gasping for breath, unable to feel my lungs. My heart was pounding wildly. We decided my husband could get there and back much faster without me so I would stay near – not in – the car and wait. I watched as my husband’s figure disappear into the darkness and silence settled around me. “This was fine,” I thought, “This is fine. Just go back to the car and wait in front of it in the headlights, you’ll be fine.”

One, two, three, four steps I counted out loud as I retreated down the hill and before I even knew what happened, I was careening on my backside over gravel and through sticks and trees and rocks. I crashed on the side of the road, not that far from my car. My leg was twisted behind me and my heart was still pounding in my ears. It was dark now, completely – and I was lying completely alone on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere with no way to call for help. My mind was racing, I couldn’t breath at all and I didn’t know if I had seriously hurt myself. I felt my mind and my physical body begin to panic as tears welled in my eyes. I had to regain control of my mind and my body and hope my husband would arrive soon.

“You fell down the hill,” I said out loud to the blackness, “You’re still alive, you’re near the car, your husband is coming back and until then you just have to wait.” I had my own attention now. I said aloud again, “You fell and here you are. Now what are you going to do?” I listened to myself. “You’re freaking out right now and that’s okay – you fell down a hill, but you’re okay, you just need to find out if you’re hurt.” I fell and I couldn’t unfall so I let myself accept that I fell and it was scary – and that was okay, I had every reason to be worried. I cried for a few minutes in my angst.

Next, I began an assessment of the situation – both around me and internally. This is also referred to as grounding. Anxiety can make us feel very detached, dissociated, or unreal and grounding – or assessment as I like to call it – brings us back to the here and now. This process can help us to focus on reality and the present situation. You can do things like tell yourself you’re safe or do something physical. The goal is to turn your focus and attention away from the situation that is causing distress. When I first started practicing grounding during a panic attack, I had no idea it was an actual technique, but I began to realize it helped relax my mind, my heart rate, my breathing and it helped me to come up with a plan.

Lying in the snow, I took a physical survey of my body: I could move my arms and legs, there was no blood coming from my head or anywhere else, I could prop myself up on my elbows. I reminded myself of the positive things I knew to be a fact: My husband was coming back in a matter of time, I had my medical ID on me in case something happened in the meantime, I had the car for warmth and for safety if some terrifying creature came out of the woods, I saw a farmhouse on the drive here or I could walk to the castle myself if my husband failed to return, there were other people staying near our cabin and the chances of them coming along before morning was pretty high.

It is at this stage of surviving a panic attack that it might be helpful to seek out the support, advice or comfort of a trusted individual; but in some situations – like mine – calling someone might not be ideal or even possible. So, I had to gain support from somewhere else. On my back in the snow, I remembered how incredibly hungry I was and I remembered I had a Cadbury Crème Egg from my Dad in my pocket. I normally don’t insist people turn to food for comfort, but I pulled that egg out and ate it right there in the snow. In that moment, it made me feel a lot better and I even laughed at myself for a moment. From there, I thought about how I could, in fact, write about this experience once it was all over and help someone else who experienced similar feelings. Maybe someone else could use my experience as support in the future. I thought about my Dad and what he might be doing and I hoped my husband had made it to the castle by this time.

Support accomplished, I made a quick plan in my head. Planning is beneficial because whether it is an elaborate plan or a quick thing we need to do, planning empowers us to take action and take care of ourselves and the situation. It may be a quick plan to get you through the next ten minutes or it might be an elaborate plan to help you through the next year – whatever it may be, make a plan. You can say it in your mind or even better, write it down. Not being an ideal writing situation, I made my plan in my head. I was going to get up and get off the side of the road, dust myself off, walk as carefully as possible a little closer to the car (staying in front of it) and stand in the headlights. Then, I was going to wait until my husband returned. After that, there would be time enough to figure out how to get my car off the ridge and get all of us back to safety.

Plan in place, it was time to execute I rolled over on my side, flexing my leg that was curled behind me and preparing to get up just as I heard another vehicle coming fast up the hill behind my car. My heart lurched, “Not in the plan! Not in the plan!” I heard car doors slamming, voices yelling and two sets of rough hands grabbing me under the armpits, lifting me to my feet. They were yelling, “Are you okay? What happened? Are you alone? Let us help you, here, come here. You’re all right, right?” They were dusting me off and patting me on the shoulders. I stuttered back I thought I was okay, my car was stuck and my husband went to the castle. I was looking into the faces of two young gentlemen who looked as concerned as I had been feeling. They kindly offered to let me wait in their truck, but I was reluctant and really set on my pre-determined plan to stand in the headlights. It was settled then; they would wait in the headlights with me until my husband returned. And so, all three of us waited and chatted about the weather and the incredibly brilliant stars we could see – and I found myself relieved to accept a little additional support besides chocolate and my own thoughts.

It wasn’t so bad, I realized, and when my husband did return much to my relief and anxiety – he came back, but could not find any help – I was happy to report that because I had fallen down the hill, I acquired all the help we needed. The three of them were able to get my car off the ridge and back it down the first hill and to the cabin – where it remained parked for the rest of the weekend.

panic attack steps

A panic attack is scary – and that’s okay. I think panic attacks are especially scary after a pulmonary embolism because a lot of the symptoms can feel like a pulmonary embolism – trouble breathing, sweating, maybe even chest pain. It is important to note if you have these symptoms and they do not subside, you must seek medical attention right away. As survivors of an event that one in three people do not survive, we often realize in the most profound ways just how fortunate we are to be here and I think that can accelerate the feeling of panic in an already scary or threatening situation.

It is my hope for you that with these steps, self-love and self-care you can handle the next one and move on with all of the important things in your day, your week or your life.

Reader Writes In: What are your tips for handling a panic attack?

There is hope for healing and you are not alone,





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