Elvis Cures The Panic Attacks


My dear, remarkable father of blessed memory was no mere a musician.  He was a Harvard-trained composer and arranger, played that complicated organ at his temple for fifty years, and was very, very serious about music.

In fact, he was so serious that only “serious” music could be played in our household.  After all, he was a classmate of Leonard Bernstein, and studied under Aaron Copland and was one of the few fellowship students allowed to attend lectures by the great Stravinsky.

Now THAT’S serious!

As such, I missed out on popular music while growing up.  I was not allowed “American Bandstand” after school.  I was not give Beatles records.  We didn’t even watch Elvis on Ed Sullivan.

Record of Elvis PresleyThat may be why I’ve – perhaps – over-compensated now that I’m grown and on my own.  In fact, my husband and I repeated our vows at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas before an Elvis imitator (I believe we did this before it was commonplace, as it is today).

So Elvis has a special place in my heart – a tragic figure, perhaps manipulated and used and finally victim of over-aggressive pharmacology and a too-willing doctor, like many celebrities have been.

One of my patients — who was not famous at all — also had a special feeling for Elvis.

She was 36 years old, married, and had no children — just a household she loved to take care of.  She also had full-blown panic disorder — one panic attack every day or two.

They mostly happened when she left the house, so I was not very surprised she did not much feel like leaving the house.  Sometimes they came in the middle of the night and woke her from sleep; sometimes, when she and her husband discussed some “tough issues,” like how to handle the family or whether to move from the neighborhood where they had both grown up.

She had tried a Xanax (alprazolam) from her girlfriend, who had a similar problem, and it had certainly helped, so she thought she could just pop in to see the nearest doctor, get a prescription and be on her way.

Hoo-boy, did she pick the wrong shrink-lady!

When I use such medications — and I usually hate to do so — I warn people about addiction and tell them we will transition to an antidepressant to diminish the frequency and intensity of those attacks.

I wanted to look for a pattern, something we could use to treat things on the psychological level –or on the medical level.  Hypoglycemia, for example, if they all come before lunch.  Dealing with her family, if they were all related to family issues. What made them worse? What made them better?  Was there a pattern?

Don’t laugh -– I know doctors don’t usually take that much time with a patient and ask a lot of questions when they can just dash off a prescription and yell “Next!”  This is just my peccadillo.

There was one thing that seemed to always make them better.  She seemed afraid and ashamed to tell me.  She thought I would just give her a prescription and turn her loose. I begged her to tell me the thing that made it better. With downcast gaze and a big blush, she finally told me.

Elvis music.

When she heard Elvis sing, she felt goose bumps all over her body, and her muscles relax. When she was home alone, and she felt a panic attack coming on, she listened to Elvis and she would not get the attack. I asked her if she had a “Walkman” or something like it.  She told me that she’d never heard of such a thing but did have an IPod.  I guess I really showed my age on that one.

Why not try it? I suggested. Perhaps she could avoid medication altogether, and then keep a journal of when she got attacks to see if there was anything else to deal with, and see if Elvis music could really stop the attacks. She even knew what songs were most effective.

“Wise men say only fools rush in … But I can’t help falling in love with you.”

I, too, get goosebumps with that song.  I had a flashback to singing along with my husband and our very own Elvis impersonator in that little wedding chapel in Vegas.

I’m just an old romantic, I guess … (SIGH!)

I think I scared her with what had been nothing more than a lucid and honest discussion of the advantages and risks of benzodiazepines – you know, addiction, overdose, seizures from withdrawal, death – little things like that.

An Elvis cassette and a Walkman – er, an IPod — would be by her bed for the nighttime panic attacks.  She would leave it by the front door if she had to leave the house. We agreed only to a brief trial. She could see me again in a week or so if the panic attacks persisted, and we would talk about prescriptions.

She was smiling, now, and seemed really confident that the Elvis music would work. We even decided that her husband would not get jealous of Elvis if she used his music in this way.

I’ve only seen a few Elvis movies (thanks to my husband – I doubt if I would ever seek them out on my own).  I know Elvis could race cars and dive off of a cliff in Acapulco and win boxing matches – but could he cure a humble housewife’s panic attacks?

He surely must have, for I never saw her again.

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