Approximately one in ten of us will experience a panic attack at some point during our lifetime. Therefore, whether you’ve had a panic attack or not, chances are pretty high that you know someone who has. I mean, we all know at least nine other people, right? Just off the top of my head, I can think of five people I know and consider good friends who have talked to me about their personal experiences with panic attacks in the past.
But in spite of how common they are, most people don’t really understand what panic attacks are or what happens when you have one. Before I had my first panic attack, my knowledge of them was sketchy at best. When I did first find myself in the midst of full-blown panic, I had no idea what was going on and at the time, I thought I was dying. And obviously, when you’re panicking, thinking you’re about to die does nothing to aid the situation. In light of all that, I thought I’d do a write-up of all I’ve learnt about panic attacks since then. I hope it’ll be of some help to someone, somewhere. If you’re a sufferer and none of this is new to you, maybe you can at least find some comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone.
So, despite the fact that this post is incredibly hard to write, I’m going to do it, because if even one person is able to get something out of this, it will be 100% worth my time.
What is a panic attack?
The name says a lot, really. A panic attack is a sudden and intense onset of panic, accompanied by any of a number of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms include: shortness of breath, hyperventilation, sweating, dizziness, pounding heart, shaking, feeling like you’re going to pass out, nausea, feeling detached, and feeling like you’re going to die. Panic attacks usually last for only a few minutes (I think half an hour is the longest your body can panic for), but they can occur on and off in bursts and can take hours to recover from. They can happen anywhere, at any time of day, even when you’re sleeping.
After a panic attack, you feel drained and exhausted both physically and emotionally. They can also make you feel weak, pathetic, and – if you were in company when one happened – embarrassed and ashamed. Basically, panic attacks are a really fucking awful experience that no-one should have to live through.
Why do panic attacks happen?
Feelings of panic, anxiety and fear are all entirely normal responses to dangerous situations. Feeling panicked when you’re in danger is what helps you to get through the situation: adrenaline rushes around your body, getting you ready to either fight the threat or run away from it. It is thought that panic attacks occur when this natural “fight or flight” defense system is triggered despite the fact that there is no immediate danger. Unfortunately, even medical experts don’t really have much understanding beyond this, such as why exactly it happens. No one really knows why some people’s defense systems are set off so easily whereas other people’s aren’t. It’s just one of those shitty things in life that happen and that we have to learn to deal with.
What is panic disorder?
Some people might have only one, or a few, panic attacks throughout their lives. In between, they live their lives relatively free of anxiety and thoughts of panic. However, other people might have a panic attack and become immediately terrified of having another one, which can actually cause them to have more. These people experience frequent panic attacks, and they change the way they live and avoid certain situations to try and prevent future attacks from occurring. Panic attacks and the fear of having them can completely take over some people’s lives. This is panic disorder, and it’s one of several anxiety disorders that affect loads of people all over the world.
What can I do about my panic attacks?
Panic attacks are, as I think I’ve established now, really really unpleasant. Fortunately, there are lots of options in terms of coping with panic attacks, and even stopping them before they really start. I’ll run through some of the ones I’ve found most helpful here.
- See a professional. I cannot stress this enough. If you are suffering from regular panic attacks, or even if you’ve just had a couple and you’re a bit worried about what to do if one happens again, please make an appointment to talk about it with your GP. I waited months before doing this, and I wish I hadn’t. Doctors are here to help with all kinds of illnesses, and this includes mental illnesses. My doctor was so helpful to me when I finally went to see her, and she had a lot of different options to offer me in terms of treatment. If I hadn’t gone to see her, I’d probably still be having panic attacks several times a week.
- Beta blockers. Beta blockers are medicines that can help with anxiety and panic attacks by reducing the unpleasant physical symptoms these disorders can cause you to experience. The beta blocker I currently use is propranolol. I only take it when I am feeling really anxious or if I feel a panic attack coming on, but it works a treat. I almost always feel heaps better within minutes of taking it. If panic attacks are getting in the way of your life, I highly recommend talking to your doctor about giving beta blockers a try.
- Breathing exercises. I talked about this a bit in my last post, but another thing that I find really helps when I’m feeling panicky is finding somewhere really quiet, preferably on my own, lying on my back and just focusing on taking really deep breaths.
- Wherever possible, reduce the stress in your life. When I was having panic attacks regularly, they would always get worse whenever I was really stressed out, the causes of which tended to involve assignment deadlines and ridiculous amounts of coursework. I find that if I give myself plenty of time to do the things I need to do, I feel so much less stressed. If that means starting (and finishing) an assignment well before it’s due, then I’ll do it. I used to be able to cope pretty well under last-minute pressure and high-stress level environments, but not so much since my anxiety got bad. It’s important to make positive adjustments to your life in order to manage your anxiety better while still allowing you to achieve the things you want to do.
- Remember that panic attacks will not kill you. No matter how scary they are, you cannot die from having one. I know how hard it is, but if you are panicking, try to remember that you are not going to die because of it, and that you’ve made it through every other panic attack you’ve ever had, so you will make it through this one too. And please know that it is 100% possible to manage and treat panic attacks. I speak from experience here. Panic disorder ruined my life for months – it damaged the relationships I had with those around me, it stopped me from doing things I really loved and wanted to do, and it made every day into a potentially terrifying experience. But now it’s been four months since my last full-blown panic attack, and I am living a fulfilling life. I am no longer afraid.
How can I help someone else who is having a panic attack?
It can be really scary to be with someone who is having a panic attack, especially if you’ve never seen one before and don’t know what to do. So I’ve compiled some pointers for if you ever find yourself in that situation. Please bear in mind that these are based almost completely off my own experiences. Other people might need different things to what I do, but hopefully this can be a kind of general guide.
- Remain calm. For me, this is probably the most important one. As scary as it can be to be with someone who is effectively losing control of their mind and their body, you freaking out on them is only going to make the experience so much worse for them. It’s your job to keep calm and act like you’re not afraid. As harsh as it sounds, someone who is having a panic attack can only worry about their own wellbeing at that point.
- If possible, help them to get to a quiet, safe, secluded place. When I’m having a panic attack, I become hyperaware of all stimuli (sounds, smells, &c) in the most unpleasant way. Everything becomes really intense and really awful. So there’s nothing worse than having a panic attack in a noisy place or a room full of people. If they’re able to ride out the panic in a quiet place, they’ll probably recover so much quicker.
- Don’t ask them questions. Trying to ask what they need or trying to distract them will probably only make it harder for them, even if your intentions are good. They will talk to you and tell you what they need when they’re ready.
- Realise that they may not be able to talk to you. They are focusing all of their energy on getting through the panic. Anything else – such as talking – is usually just too much. Let them know that it’s okay and that you’re not expecting them to respond before they’re ready to.
- Let them know you’re there for them. Tell them that you’re here and you’re not going anywhere. They will want and appreciate your support, even if they can’t articulate it at the time.
- Remind them – gently – to keep breathing slowly and deeply. ‘In through your nose, out through your mouth’ is something that one of my friends has said to me in the past when I’ve been panicking, and I found that really helpful.
- Don’t tell them there’s nothing to panic about. You may mean well, but please don’t. It will only make them feel worse for panicking.
- If they want to, you can try talking to them afterwards about what happened. Don’t force them into a dialogue, because they might just want to process it on their own. However, if they’re willing it can be good to talk afterwards about what they think might have triggered it, and whether what you were doing for them was helpful.
- Understand that they are not choosing to be this way. Nobody chooses to have a panic attack.
- If panic attacks are becoming a regular thing in their life, encourage them to seek professional help. Don’t force them, but let them know you’re worried for them and want to see them well. When they’re ready, they will go.
- Remember to look after yourself too. Seeing someone else panic can be a really unpleasant experience in itself, and if you’re feeling shaken about it, don’t be afraid to talk to someone else about it.
How can I help other people to help me?
If you suffer from panic attacks, it’s important to communicate with those around you, especially your close friends and family, what they can do to help you through them. It might be hard to talk about them, but please make the effort. It will benefit both you and them.
- Tell them what you need. While I’ve outlined a few things that help me, and that I’ve heard help other people as well, everyone’s different and you might have different needs from the ones I’ve written above. Let people know what helps you when you’re panicking.
- If possible, make a battle plan. When I’m explaining to people what to do with me when I’m panicking, I make sure that they know to give me propranolol as the first port of call. I then show them what it looks like, where to find it, and how many to give me. I tell them that it’s also important to try to get me to slow down my breathing, and to make sure I’m not covering my face with my hands or whatever object happens to be nearby.
This week’s post ended up being a bit of a heavy one, but in my experience, talking about panic attacks is never light and breezy. And, not gonna lie, it was a pretty difficult thing for me to sit down and write, so I’m proud to have gotten through it. If you want something a little more lighthearted after that less-than-pleasant read, maybe you’d like to check out my ‘100 happy days’ tag on my Tumblr account here: http://itsironbeth.tumblr.com/tagged/100happydays.
If you have any questions, or any suggestions for ways that you get through/help someone else get through panic attacks, please leave me a comment letting me know. And I’d like to finish by letting you know that, no matter how bad things may be, they will get better. Because I’ve experienced it myself, I really believe that it’s possible for anyone to recover from regular panic attacks.