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Panic attack relating to a dream

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

When I was 4 my brother and a neighbor attempted to have sex with me. My brother also performed oral sex on me. After this event, which was seen by several neighborhood kids, I was shamed by my brother for years. At the same time he touched me on several occasions in an inappropriate way. In one recurring thing, he would rub his foot up my leg, slowly going higher and higher. I was also touched by at least one other child in the neighborhood. I further worry because I have memories as a child that suddenly become foggy (as in I suddenly literally see fog). I am attempting to come to terms with all of this and generally do not think about it often. However, I have noticed that when I begin a new relationship, I often start to revisit this topic.

On a few occasions certain events (such as having a foot rubbed up my leg during sleep) have caused me to feel scared, upset, sensitive to even small noises and worried about my son to the point where I have to go make sure he is safe. This happens approximately once per year or less.

At any rate, I would say that it was something that has been on the fringe of my consciousness lately. Then I was speaking with a teenage girl who accused someone of inappropriately touching her. While many people did not believe her I did and it began to bother me and bring this topic up in my mind. Then one night I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that a coworker was violently shaking me and I was trying to make him stop and I was completely terrified. I woke up when I heard myself crying. That night I woke up crying several more times. The next day I felt scared and anxious whenever I heard his voice or saw him. Then one night I was in the shower and thinking about the last time I had one of these events. Suddenly I became completely terrified. I instantly began crying and hyperventilating. I had to thrust the shower curtain open in order to make sure that no one else was there. I was trembling because I was breathing so hard. I began to walk out of the bathroom because I was scared. However, once I got to the door I stopped, because I was too scared to walk out; I didn’t know what or who was out there. I knew I was being irrational, but I just couldn’t stop myself. I sat in the bathroom for approximately 10-15. My fingers and toes went tingly because I was breathing so hard. After 15 minutes I was able to convince myself to leave the bathroom and talk to a friend. After an hour and half I was calm enough to go to bed, but with the lights on. I heard the sound of my cats footsteps on the carpet and tile and every creak the apartment made.

The next day I hoped that I would be better, but instead I was still scared. I could hear every tiny sound. The sight of the coworker I had dreamed about made me even more scared this time. I felt the need to watch my back and stand up against walls. These feelings slowly began to subside, but I am still scared to shower at night. This is by far the worst episode I have ever had.
Since then I have began having strange dreams. For example, I dreamed that I was being chased by men who were trying to break down my door.

I am able to function, but I just have been sensitive to sounds, and way more easily scared. Also, I am worrying that the panic attack or whatever it was will happen again. I suppose I really just want to know if this will subside like it has before, or if it will continue? What should I do? Normally, I feel like my mental health is good enough, but right now I am struggling.

I can’t make a definitive diagnosis on the basis of a letter, of course. But what you are describing is consistent with the “flashbacks” often seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You have managed to put the events of your childhood aside for many, many years. I don’t blame you for being mystified about why it comes up now. One theory about such situations is that you are adult enough and strong enough now to deal with your feelings instead of pushing them under. I know that may sound ironic but there’s often some truth to it. I suspect you identified with the teenager who wasn’t being believed and that opened the door to your own unresolved feelings about having been similarly abused. It’s as if the unconscious mind decided, “OK, she has the resources to manage now so it’s time to allow the full extent of her feelings to come up to the surface.”

I suggest that you find a therapist who is experienced with childhood trauma and PTSD. Share with the therapist what you have said here and see what he or she thinks. If I’m right, please do focus on the positive. There is well documented treatment for PTSD. And you are telling yourself that you can handle it. Both things give you reason to be optimistic that treatment will help you resolve the trauma and deal with your fears.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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