I’ve written before about my anxiety, and all the things that go hand in hand with it (there are quite a lot, in case you didn’t notice). For me, one of those joyous little secondary syndromes is panic disorder; in other words, regular visits from the panic attack fairy (she’s great). Obviously, panic attacks are not exactly a walk in the park for me, but they’re not great for whoever is unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, either.
I had my first panic attack around the same time I was diagnosed with GAD, at around 17. I honestly thought I was dying. Unluckily for me, it was during a massive family row, throughout which I was on the receiving end, and no one really cared much that I was suffering. To give everyone else credit though, no one, including me, knew what was going on at the time.
Since then, I’ve seen some professionals who’ve given me the heads up, and now people are a bit more in the know. The problem is, though, is that most people I know aren’t sure how to handle someone having a panic attack and are understandably freaked out by the concept of a hysterical wreck who thinks they’re having a stroke/ heart attack/ seizure. But, as more and more people seem to be being diagnosed with anxiety disorders and all the secondary syndromes that come with it, I think it’s really important for everyone to understand exactly what a panic attack is and how to deal with one when it rears its head. It’s also worth bearing in mind though, that just like anxiety, panic attacks are different for everyone and can be different each time, this is just my experience.
What is a panic attack?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think most people will agree that panic attacks don’t tend to have an obvious, one-size-fits-all trigger. Because of my personality and the way I am, I know that lots of my panic attacks are triggered by conflict, whether I’m part of it, in the middle of it or just watching it on TV (I’ve been known to get anxious watching I’m a Celeb). Even the smallest sign of impending
doom arguments can make me feel panicky. Even if you do have a trigger though, there is, for most of us, the joy of expecting the unexpected attack, which can come one any time, any place.
When a panic attack strikes, I experience the following symptoms:
- Hyperventilating/ just generally not being able to breathe.
- Numbness, usually in my face, arms and hands (you see where the stroke association comes in).
- Uncontrollable sobbing.
- Fast heart rate and lots of butterflies.
- Horrible thoughts like the above stroke and heart attack worries, as well as feeling isolated and awful about myself.
- Anxiety/ stress times a million.
- Feeling very cold.
- Derealisation or feeling very detached from your body and your surroundings (this has to be the weirdest one).
Clearly, it’s a very complicated time for my brain and you can see why it’s so scary for so many people.
How to cope
Just like my anxiety, I’ve found ways to cope with panic attacks most of the time. It’s a work in progress and I still have panic attacks (Saturday being the most recent one), but there are ways to keep it under control for the most part.
- Recognise the initial symptoms
- A therapist once pointed out to me that she noticed my chest moving faster as I told her a story about one of my panic attacks. Since then, I make sure to recognise things like faster breathing and heart rate, as these tend to be the warning signs. Find some breathing exercises and stick with them until everything just slows down (NB, it takes a little practise).
- In fact, breathing exercises could also be your best friend during a panic attack.
- Trying to source a paper bag to carry round with you is decidedly not helpful, but other breathing techniques are. I like to close my eyes and count each in and out breath up to ten. Then start again. It helps to get your breathing under control, as well as taking your mind off anxious thoughts that could prolong the attack (boooo).
- Sit low down.
- I like to be on the ground between things that are taller than me. Something to do with centring and sheltering myself I guess.
How to help someone having a panic attack
I’ve never been on this end of the relationship, so what I say may not work for others. However, I know how I like people to deal with my panic attacks – just don’t do anything. I know it might be scary to watch and when you see someone you love having what may as well be a temporary mental breakdown all you want to do is help them.
Actually, though, having someone express worry or concern can actually make you feel more anxious, even if it comes from the best places. To make sure you’ve got everything under control you also need total concentration, which can be harder if you’re being spoken to or hugged during a panic attack.
I’ll often lock myself in the bathroom to have a panic attack just so that I can let it all out without anyone having to overly worry about me. Once it’s over, though, I’m always emotionally exhausted and a cuddle and a nap is the best thing I could ask for.
On a final note, panic attacks and anxiety can feel very isolating, so remember that you’re not on your own and there are lots of lovely people who are there ready to support you, whatever you need. ♥