I can easily recall the first anxiety attack I had. It was October 2012. I had to start my drive to the airport at 4:30 am to catch a 6 am flight. I’d driven the route before with no problem and I didn’t expect one that morning either. I was in a great mood, had packed the day before so I wasn’t hurried and I was looking forward to my trip. When I pulled out of my neighborhood and started toward downtown, I turned on the GPS and settled back for the ride.
The first hitch in my mind was when I realized the GPS wasn’t giving its usual voice commands. What should have been a simple problem with an even simpler solution (pull over and fix it) turned into terror when I looked up from the GPS and realized the area that had been familiar only seconds ago was now completely foreign to me.
I didn’t know where I was.
I started talking out loud and cheering myself on – “You can do this. You’ve been here before. You just don’t recognize it for some reason.” I had only been driving for a few minutes – how did I get lost so quickly? I couldn’t understand what had happened. Within a few seconds my lips and the area around my mouth began to tingle. Then my back suddenly felt frozen like someone was pouring ice water down my shirt. When my breathing became rapid and shallow I knew I had to pull over the first chance I had.
As I turned the car into an empty parking lot my hands seized up and gripped the steering wheel like talons. I couldn’t move my fingers. Luckily my legs were okay and I was able to bring the car to a stop and try to catch my breath. Slowly, as I talked myself down, the feeling in my hands and face returned and I flipped on the heater to rid myself of the ice down my spine. My breathing was still rapid and I felt dizzy, confused. I knew I was on the right street; the signs confirmed it. So why didn’t I recognize anything around me?
It was like my mind was split in two and the side that was okay was at war with the side that wasn’t.
I was now 30 minutes late and the fear of missing my flight just compounded my already frantic state. I considered finding my way back home and waking my husband to drive me. I remember saying over and over, “I can’t do this.”
After sitting in the parking lot for another 20 minutes I finally regained control of my mind and body and (miraculously) made my flight. But, I was still shaken by the experience. What had happened? I’d never had anything remotely close to an anxiety attack before. Life was not overly stressful. What had clicked that made me take Mister Toad’s Wild Ride 10 minutes from my house? I would soon find out: Perimenopause.
Once you’ve had an anxiety attack, you feel you can no longer trust your own mind.
My episodes developed into something even more odd — they only happened when I was driving. I had no anxiety in crowds, at events, taking walks alone – no nightmares or anything else. It was only when I slid behind the steering wheel that things went wrong.
Over the next several months 50% of my drives resulted in panic at some point and to varying degrees. They were completely random; sometimes a long drive and sometimes just a trip down the street to the grocery store. Some required me to pull over and some I managed to control. It was crazy and it made me angry. I was 37 years old – I should know how to drive! I’d spent years zipping through busy streets in Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville without a care in the world; now I couldn’t go buy milk in the suburbs without fearing I’d get lost. It also took a toll on my husband who now had to be responsible for any drive that required going more than a few miles away. I needed some answers.
I sought the advice of my doctor and she confirmed, not only that I was in the very early stages of menopause, but that it was the most likely culprit for my new driving fears. At first I didn’t believe the speeches from her about breathing and talking to make them pass. “Do you know what these are like?! I can’t breathe at all, much less regulate it. I can’t grab the wheel, feel my face…and you want me to TALK myself out of it?” But, the only other alternative was medicating myself 24/7 for something that only happened a few hours a month – so I tried harder.
The good news: it does work – slowly. Thanks to breathing techniques, self talk and the knowledge that it will pass, I’m no longer incapacitated behind the wheel (even when I’m actually lost). However, I still battle an accelerated heart rate and a foggy feeling if I have trouble with directions or take the wrong exit. I’ve also started searching out my route via Google satellite map. That lets me see the landmarks so I have familiar mile markers when driving. It’s no longer dangerous, but it remains annoying; I feel incompetent.
When I read an article on anxiety sufferers by Jessica Gottlieb, I started wondering how many women suffer random anxiety without realizing it’s due to early menopause. We all know that the cessation of your period is the most definitive sign, but we are rarely told about the laundry list of other symptoms that come before that – or the fact that it can happen many years before we expect it.
The hormonal transition to menopause begins, on average, four years before you actually stop menstruating. One of the first signs of these hormone transitions can be anxiety and panic attacks. The average age a woman ceases menstruating is 52 but some women experience the worst of their symptoms between ages 35 to 45. HealtheWoman.org
Studies also show that the age a woman begins to enter menopause is heavily influenced by genetics. If your mother started early, you may as well. After asking my mother, I found she was already experiencing symptoms when she was two years younger than me. So why does early menopause affect your mind? It’s most likely progesterone deficiency.
In a normally cycling woman, the hormones estrogen and progesterone exist in perfect harmony, rising and falling at set times in a woman’s cycle to control her bleeding but also to keep her feeling her best. Around age 30, but many times even younger, progesterone levels start to fall. The problem begins here because progesterone is a woman’s calming hormone. Without progesterone women may begin to feel more overwhelmed and easily stressed. In many women, this leads to anxiety issues, including tension headaches, palpitations, digestive issues and more – and in some cases, even full blown panic disorder. healthline.com
It was extremely comforting to know my mind wasn’t gone — it’s just running low on an important ingredient; to compensate, it had to put something on the back burner. For some women it’s crowds and for others it might be work or tasks they have been performing for years. My brain chose driving. Through my reading I’ve found a drop in progesterone could also be causing other symptoms I’ve experienced consistantly over the past several months: unexpected gluten sensitivity, increased moodiness during PMS and hair loss. While there are prescription treatments, such as Provera, there are also natural ways you can raise your progesterone levels:
- Wild Yam Cream
- Black Cohosh
- more info
Armed with this information I now feel more secure and able to tackle the next several years as I make may way through that dreaded ‘change of life’. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms or others that seem random or out of the ordinary, speak with your doctor. He or she can perform a simple set of blood tests to better determine your hormone levels and suggest a course of action.
More information about Perimenopause:
Creative Commons Images: Front feature: “Day 96: Free Falling – Explored” by Sodanie Chea (CC BY 2.0) // Post Images:  “Anxiety” by Alaina Abplanalp Photography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  “Drive” by Thomas Nielsen (CC BY-SA 2.0)