We’ve all heard the term temper tantrums, but have you ever had a “terror tantrum?”  Until I began to try to come off Xanax, I could never have conceived of such a thing.  In many ways  it has some traits similar to a panic attack — racing thoughts, walls closing in, physiological changes.  But for me, there comes with it what I call a sense of chemical terror that may or may not have any particular trigger and is blood curdling.  The terror feels all encompassing and literally has brought me to my knees, not feeling like I was about to be annihilated but CONVINCED I was in some sort of mental and physical self implosion that would, in fact, end me.

Once out of a terror tantrum, I am able to think a bit more reasonably and reflect on them.  But for a while after, I am convinced no one can go through this and not develop some form of PTSD as a result of these episodes.  That said, I have heard time and time again from those on the other side of this that they are not plagued with PTSD regarding what they experienced – mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually – while they were in their process of healing from the medication damage.

I have found it near impossible to describe to a loved one why seemingly out of the blue I suddenly freeze like a deer caught in the headlights.  That is my response to a terror tantrum – I become completely paralyzed.  It isn’t that I want to remain still, eyes wide open and unblinking, waiting for the grip of death to release me — it feels I have no choice in those moments.  In trying to explain my behavior in those moments to my loved ones I have asked them to imagine they are trying to read to their child when suddenly both their feet go into toe curling foot cramps.  Can you continue to read?  Can you pretend your feet aren’t cramping?  No, we tend to drop anything and grab our foot doing anything we can to stop the pain and discomfort.  It’s a weak metaphor, but it’s the best I have at the moment.  You cannot concentrate, you cannot pay attention – you are literally in the grip of a painful, automatic process.

I feel when I enter those random “terror tantrums” that I have a mind cramp.  My brain has literally seized up.  My limbic system is in a complete knot, a neurochemical firestorm, and all I can do is wait it out.  Wait it out while doing my damnedest to remember it is to be expected.  Our limbic system that is our stress response system is laden with Gaba-A receptors — remember these receptors are what are down-regulated by taking a benzodiazepine.

Imagine Gaba (your neurotransmitter responsible for helping you chill out) is a key and it is looking for the right lock (the Gaba-A receptor) to fit in nicely so it can perform its function of inhibiting us and making us calm.  Well, our locks (receptors) are corrupted and the key doesn’t quite fit.  So, we have this free floating Gaba with no place to go to help us.  In the meantime, we have glutamate doing its function (excitatory) but without its partner in crime – Gaba- to balance each other out and keep us in check and in a state of homeostasis.  Thus, the excitatory glutamate wins out and keeps us racing, our hearts palpating, our minds flipping through random, scary scenes one after the other.  Without our feel good hormones and neurotransmitters on board – things like oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine – the content of those racing thoughts and feelings are certainly not sunshine and rainbows.

Long way of saying, of course we have terror tantrums in benzo withdrawal.  Of course we have all sorts of uncomfortable, dark, scary, fear-based, racing mental and physical experiences.  There are real physiological issues that are creating this horror movie in our minds.  I have said it before that being in my mind is a combo of Being John Malkovich, the Johnny Depp version of Willy Wonka and maybe a touch of The Shining to boot.  We just have to do our best to not believe we are the star or the stunt double in the horror flick.  We are simply the observer that thought we were walking in to see Finding Nemo, but before we know it we are in the opening scene of  Scream, sitting frozen and rigid in our seats wondering what the hell is going on.  The withdrawal double feature of the day may be not anything we would ever wish to see, but we are in the theater nonetheless.  We can remember, we are not the movie.  That person in the movie is not us.  And we can choose to not engage.  My terror tantrums worsen when I start to identify with it – saying “oh no, not again” or “I am never going to get better” or “I am going to lose my mind”.  I have to wait until those damn stress hormones decide to chill the hell out while simultaneously not making it worse by throwing logs of “oh no” and “what if” onto the fire.

One day, the flames will calm.  We will return to a state in which we are not afraid of……well, just about everything.  We won’t have random terror attacks and tantrums out of the blue.  We will come back to ourselves.  Just hang on!