When Panicking Is Not a Panic Attack

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Another reader shares her story:

I was a generally healthy person until a few weeks before Christmas 2013. I was having strange headaches that would start at the base of my skull and feel as though someone was dumping cold water down my neck. These headaches came and went. I popped Advil daily, but they weren’t debilitating and I was so focused on finishing up my last teaching semester that I put off going to the doctor until January.

On Christmas Day, my husband and I went to go see a movie (our Christmas tradition, since we live away from our families). About two hours into the movie, I felt the right side of my face go numb—I felt as though I couldn’t feel my cheek or move the right side of my mouth. The next thing I know, I was shaking and my entire right side went numb, followed by a tingling feeling.

Something in my mind kicked into overdrive and I immediately turned to my husband and whispered, “Something isn’t right. We need to go. NOW.”

My husband immediately drove me to the emergency room, but on the way there, something in my mind just broke and I remember being in hysterics because I was worried that something really wrong was happening, that I might be having a stroke or something. I had never experienced anything like this before. I could not feel my right arm and my right foot was numb and felt unmovable. My husband pulled over and called an ambulance because he had no idea what was going on.

The ambulance arrived about ten minutes later. When the two male paramedics lifted me up into the back of the ambulance, they barely asked questions. They checked my pulse and my heart rate, which was obviously and noticeably elevated. I tried to tell them about the numbness and tingling, but at that point they gave me some oxygen and told me to calm down, that this was probably just a panic attack.

I was desperately trying to explain that I am fine. I don’t have panic attacks and I’ve never had a problem with anxiety. As a follow up to my points, one of the paramedics turned to me and asked, “Are you sure you weren’t just scared by the movie? Were you watching a scary movie? That can do it sometimes.” (For the record, it was The Wolf of Wall Street.)

The paramedics wheeled me into a hospital room where I sat for about 45 minutes before anyone came back to check on me. When a doctor showed up, he looked at my vitals and asked me about my symptoms (which were still occurring at that moment). He diagnosed this as a panic attack, gave me some extra-strength Tylenol and Xanax, and told me to follow up with my primary care physician later.

Two weeks later (in south Georgia, there are only so many doctors available), I got in to see my primary care physician. I told him what had happened and he asked if the Xanax worked. I said, “Well, it makes me calm and some of the symptoms go away, but the numbness and tingling were always there.” He ordered a CT scan later that day which came back normal. There was nothing wrong.

I thought that was the end of it. Every time I had the numbness and tingling, I would take a Xanax because I thought this was a panic attack—even though there was no panic or anxiety.

On New Years Eve, the symptoms came on again, except stronger; I started uncontrollably shaking and could barely walk. Because the doctor advised me to go back to the ER if symptoms became worse, my husband took me to the ER. At this point, I was given more Xanax but told that I have vertigo probably caused by an ear infection. I was given more Klonopin and a prescription for antibiotics (to treat the ear infection I didn’t have) and was sent home. I had given up trying to explain to the nurses and the doctors that I was not having a panic attack. They didn’t listen. My husband pulled the doctor aside and tried to explain the same thing. They didn’t listen to him, either.

A week later, the symptoms came on again—but even stronger: more shaking and, most humiliating, I urinated during one of these “spells” while I was sitting on the couch. At that point, I asked my primary care physician to refer me to a neurologist. It took another two weeks before I got in to see a neurologist. The neurologist immediately wondered why no one at the ER did any sort of scan or neurological consult and ordered an MRI because he suspected some neurological issue, possibly a mini-stroke.

The MRI showed a small cyst on the left side of my brain. Once the neurologist identified this, he had me tested for epilepsy. It turns out the “panic attacks” were partial seizures that were caused by the cyst resting on a nerve. I was finally able to be put on lamotrigine to help control the seizures.

The entire process of getting diagnosed lasted for about two months. I had partial seizures for two months, where I could hardly walk, urinated in my clothes, and could not feel the right side of my body, because I was diagnosed with panic attacks. This was an incredibly frustrating experience. I did not enjoy taking Xanax and I certainly did not enjoy taking Klonopin, but that’s what I was told to do.

I’ve had a number of similar experiences with trying to get diagnosed with endometriosis (after five years of suffering, I was diagnosed—by a female doctor—in 2012). But I know I am not the only woman who has been told by male doctors that the cause of their suffering is panic or anxiety.