Have you ever found yourself within the grip of a panic attack?
Have you ever wondered what your friend might mean when they say they’ve suffered one, or what to do to stop one when it’s happening?
Let me take you through an example of a panic/anxiety attack from the only experience I know: my own.
So there I was… Land line phone ringing. Looking at the letter in my hand saying my payment’s behind and a bailiff might soon come to my door to recover goods to cover the cost that is owed. Land line still ringing. Head going through my recent incomings and outgoings wondering how the hell am I going to have the money to prevent the bailiffs from showing up. Kids asking me questions. Can they have milk. Wondering if the milk goes if I’ll be able to buy more milk. If I buy more milk the bailiffs would be that much closer to coming to essentially rob me because I don’t have anything to give them to stop them from coming. I’m feeling violated already and they haven’t even been here! Phone still ringing. Who could be on the phone? The school to say my kid’s been in trouble? The bill collector to say they want money? Or THAT WOMAN I told to stop calling me. I told her twenty times, she still calls. She wants to harass me because I’m not doing what she thinks I should be doing and she’s projecting her fears onto me. I can’t talk to her. I want her to leave me alone. Why won’t she leave me alone?
I need to go get the babysitter. I need to go to work. The customers yelled at me last night because the place was packed and the kitchen was handling the party upstairs so their food orders had to wait. I panicked after some time and ended up crying in the cellar. What if that happens again? I can’t go to work and cry. Phone still ringing. Kids want milk. Why can’t I just answer the phone and make her stop calling me? What if the bailiffs come next week? What will they take? What does everyone want from me? Why am I an adult and don’t know what to do? Why am I failing at this? What should I have done instead? If only I’d made that other decision when I was a teenager I’d be in a different place by now, right? I don’t even know.
My chest gets tight. What if I have a heart attack? I’m too young to have a heart attack! Breathing is getting heavier and faster. I can’t slow it down. I can’t stop it. Why can’t I stop it? My eldest asks me if I’m okay. I’m not okay. I might have a heart attack right before his eyes. I don’t want him to see me so fragile. My vision is getting blurry. I can’t see straight. Am I going to pass out? I try again to slow my breathing but now I’m making strange noises that make me sound like an owl because I’m starting to sob at the same time and the combination of these is making a “hooooo” noise. He’s asking me what’s wrong. I can’t answer you because I’m uncontrollably hooting! Tears come streaming down my face. I just did my makeup in preparation for going to work in front of all those people and now I’ve ruined it. I can’t go to work with streaks down my face, they’ll all ask me what’s wrong! How am I even going to drive when I could start hooting again at any minute?
The panic doesn’t stop. It carries on. My son gets me a bag to breathe into but I seem to recall hearing that’s the wrong thing to do. So which is it? Bag or no bag?
THIS is the moment my counsellor’s talking about. The panic attack. Or anxiety attack, if you prefer. I’d prefer they didn’t exist, if I’m honest, who gives a **** what you call it?
She says imagine it’s like a television with a lot of different channels going at once. Close your eyes. Grab an invisible remote. Press pause. Stop. Loosen every muscle. Become floppy like a rag doll. Open your eyes. Look around the room and start naming things. Shelf. Cupboard. Fish tank. Couch. Shoe. Table. Simultaneously, breathe in and count to five, then breathe out and take it from five to ten. One two three four five, six seven eight nine ten.
This brings you back in the moment and grounds you. Roots you to the present. Keeps the pendulum of the mind in the centre instead of swinging wildly from past to future. Because when your mind is swinging wildly from “what if” to “if only” it can’t focus on what’s actually happening right now. You can’t undo the past. You can’t control the future. In current reality those places aren’t real. They’re memories and projections. They’re essentially just figments of your imagination.
But they can easily grip you right where it hurts. They can have you in their invisible trap and have you feeling like you’re going to die, and like you’re worthless because you can’t stop it.
I have tried to tell people about anxiety and panic attacks. I still have a sense that they’re not quite understanding what I am talking about. I don’t know what they think but I know that their perspective is not what I want it to be. Occasionally I meet someone that might say “Oh yes. I’ve had one of those. Those are the worst.” Now imagine you have scenarios like this playing out nearly every day, suddenly and without warning, just to trip you up. They don’t care if you need to go to work or not, what would you do?
Try to remember that in the midst of that storm that pendulum is swinging, and that naming things in the room and counting to ten while taking deep breaths is a good thing to do.
It reminds me of that Pharaoh’s Fury ride as a kid. That big boat that swung from extreme to extreme. When it swung forward I thought I would fall out back first, when it swung backward I would fall out face first. I wasn’t actually going to fall out either way, but try telling that to my churning stomach and crying eyes at the time.
If you have a friend who is telling you they’re having panic attacks, please think of this and try to imagine how that feels. These people are not silly. It really isn’t something they are doing wrong. It is an instinctual response resulting from the “fight or flight” reaction to a crisis. It is still a crisis even though it’s not a bear attacking, because it may as well be, for all the brain cares. In that moment we can neither fight nor flee, so what happens is we suffer from a sort of short circuit where everything goes haywire. It is utterly confusing and soul-destroying.
Be kind. Be kind to yourself if this is describing you, be kind to your friend or loved one if this is describing them. We need support. We need to be told we’re doing all we can do and that we can only cross these bridges when we get to them. There is no sense in revisiting the past, no, but we’ll likely do it anyway because it’s hard to not do that.
Be gentle. If you can’t go to the thing because you’re going to be putting yourself at risk, call and say you’re not going. Give that little bit of understanding to yourself and trust your instincts. Don’t drive after having just had a panic attack. Don’t push yourself over that edge. Consider your needs and start putting them first for once.
Be forgiving. Forgive yourself, forgive your friend. Adding to the “I’m disappointed in you” dialogue is not necessary. Or helpful.
Before panic attacks I would say that being “grounded” would be a bad thing. Now, that’s all I want to be.
Image courtesy of: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/Pharaoh%27s_Fury.jpg