Let’s Talk About Panic Attacks

Now here’s an uncomfortable topic. One of those most people feel is best left (read lost) in the closet forever. It’s one we need to talk about though, in the name of awareness and breaking the stigma.

According to Google, we can define panic attacks this way.

pan·ic at·tack
ˈpanik əˌtak/
noun: panic attack; plural noun: panic attacks
  1. a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety.

I’ve had panic attacks for the greater part of my life, without fully realising what was happening to me. They were strange events that left me feeling weird, sometimes hollow, and I didn’t want anyone to know I had these episodes. It was somehow ugly, unworthy of acknowledgement. After seeing a few therapists, I learned about panic attacks. This hidden, ugly thing turns out to be more common than we like to admit. But for some reason, even as awareness increases, we don’t talk about anything that forms a part of the dark underbelly of human experiences. Which, by the way, is where most mental issues are categorised.

If all of us keep hiding the truth, those who follow us will keep thinking this thing is ugly, and must be hidden. As a mother, I don’t want that.

The attack part of the description is probably a part of the problem. The human frame of reference means we think of convulsions and frothing at the mouth when we imagine attacks – those scary things we don’t understand. Don’t upset the kids, honey. And honestly, it makes sense. We’re not all trained medical personnel who know how to react when someone has physical symptoms that make us feel afraid and uncomfortable.

But panic attacks are different. Many of the physical symptoms are the kind that only affects the victim. You can’t see my heart palpitating, or the black spots on the edges of my pulsing vision. You don’t feel the pins and needles on my skin, or experience the weight on my chest that makes it impossible to breathe. I’m nauseated, everything is too loud, my skin is on fire and spit floods my mouth sooner than I can swallow it down. For all you know, I’m having a panic attack while sitting next to you on the bus.

Yes, I’m probably shaking and sweating, which are some of the only outward signs, but those are easily hidden.

Personally, the shaking and sweating will only start when the attack reaches level two. At this point, I’ll also start crying. But the initial stage of panic in my experience is kind of like being drunk while trapped in a tunnel. Colours and light are too bright, sound is everywhere and so loud that it hurts, movement of any kind makes it difficult to focus, it’s like I have to relearn to see every time I blink, and all the while I’m trapped in an ever-constricting space.

Sometimes, I can calm down before the panic increases. In those cases, I have actually been able to go on with my life as if nothing happened, even if I’m among people. Once my lungs work again, it’s easy enough to hide the ugly, to suppress it.

Level two is more difficult to hide. Since I can’t breathe, I gasp. I shake and my legs are unstable, so I need to clutch something to stay on my feet. Better still, I sit. I draw into a ball. In states of panic, I want nothing other than to be really, really small. I don’t want people to notice what’s happening to me, and I don’t want to be touched (my skin is on fire anyway), even though I’m crying. Sobbing, really, because who can stick to crying when you can’t breathe? This is the kind of thing that pop culture now calls ugly crying, but that’s not a description I like to use. As long as we make crying ugly, panic attacks and other mental issues will be too.

Anyway. The hot sensation on my skin becomes a strange tingle. Like that feeling when you apply Deep Heat to sprained muscles. At this stage, I’m an emotional wreck. My throughts are all over the show, just like snot and tears. I can’t hold a thought long enough to look at it, except if it’s a negative thought. For some reason, those will be readily available. In that moment, I’m worthless, horrible, unkind, unworthy. And negative thoughts fuel the anxiety, which takes the attack to level three.

Now, I’m hysterical. My chest hurts and I’m convinced I’m dying. My shaking has become violent – not convulsions, those are still worse – and I’m soaked with sweat. My thoughts are erratic, all I can think about for longer than a few seconds is the pain in my chest, because I’m clearly dying. It’s a cycle, rinse repeat. My hands and arms are numb. I start vomiting. The hurling won’t stop until I’m left retching over the toilet, but I have nothing left to expel.

Then it’s over.

Once I’m calm enough, I can clean up and go on, though I’ll have a headache for a long time and I’ll be emotionally nude for a day or two. I’m embarrassed and mentally drained. I’m numb.

What caused this? High levels of anxiety.

I run on angst at any given time. Because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. My primary instinct is flight, which has evolved into constantly suppressing the things I feel. Mentally, I’m like an overfull balloon – this is my day-to-day state. Most of the time, air is added to my balloon when things out of my control happen and my anxiety levels rise. This can be anything from bad news to an unplanned shift in my routine. In other words, panic attacks don’t just happen on days when I’m more stressed than usual, but if an outward event causes a sudden disturbance in my anxiety levels, it’s possible for an attack to occur. Having said that, in my personal experience, I’m more likely to have an attack when I’m more stressed than usual.

It is good to keep in mind that different people may experience panic attacks in different ways. The best way to help a person while having an attack is through knowledge. (Read these: link, link, link.) If there’s a person in your life who experiences these attacks, talk to them about it. NOT WHILE they’re having the attack, afterwards. Some people will gain comfort from being held. Some will need a person to soothe them with words, or songs, or whatever. Some want to be left alone, untouched. We all find our way back from the dark eventually.

If you know all too well what I’m talking about, you’re not alone. You’re not ugly. You don’t need to be unacknowledged and kept locked away. You’re not defined by your anxiety or mental illness. You’re strong, inspiring and beautiful.