The first few times I had a panic attack, I was a child around 8 years old. I had no idea what was happening to me.
My heart was beating out of my chest, my hands felt clammy, and it was as though the world was spinning around me out of control. I couldn’t really concentrate on anything — what people were saying, what was happening next. Any thoughts I had were racing so fast I couldn’t keep up with them. I felt angry and angsty, as though I was trapped in my body, clawing to get out.
And then — I had no idea how — it would pass. And I’d kinda sorta forget about it until it happened again. When I was a child, I didn’t have panic attacks very frequently, and when I had them, I had no name for them, no way to express what was happening.
When you are in the middle of a panic attack, it feels like you’re dying, going crazy, or both. You can’t breathe, you get dizzy, tingly, and lightheaded. Some people feel a constriction in their chest, almost like a heart attack. Others experience immediate digestive symptoms (much more than just butterflies in your stomach; your bowels go nuts and you often get diarrhea).
When I first experienced panic attacks, I felt like I was living inside a nightmare. It was the rawest terror I had ever felt.
I didn’t tell a soul what I’d experienced because I felt ashamed and too scared of what had happened to even talk about it.
At 16 years old, I began to have panic attacks daily. I had developed phobias, mostly centered around travel and transportation. It started with a fear of flying, which thankfully I didn’t need to face too often. But then it snowballed from there. I became frightened of trains and riding in cars. When I started being afraid to take the bus to school, it was clear that things were out of control.
It took me over a year to get help for any of it. I was a teenager but basically still a child, and I still had no clue what was happening to me.
I have been in and out of therapy since I was about 17 years old. I spent 10 years seeing a cognitive behavioral therapist. Now I have a name for what happens to me. I have periods when my panic attacks are really bad, and periods when I hardly have any. But they will always be part of who I am.
One of the most difficult things about panic attacks is that you get looped into a vicious cycle. You become terrified — not just of the thing that triggered the attack, but of the attack itself. You lie in wait for the next one to happen. You panic about panic. And you start to think you’ve lost your mind and you’re feeling on edge all the time, a slave to your own thoughts and feelings.
You can’t talk yourself out of it. There is no way to rationalize. Anxiety is a beast that wants you to believe that more will come — that you are a broken in some way and will always be afraid. Let me tell you, even if you can shut off those voices sometimes, it’s impossible to do so all the time. It’s so easy to spiral into a few days of attacks, weeks, months.
I can look back at seasons of my life and see times when I was having panic attacks daily, and times when I only had them sometimes. Usually, the times when I was suffering most frequently were also times of intense stress in my life — my parents’ divorce, moving, financial strife, the summer I had an unexpected pregnancy followed by a miscarriage.
I wish I had been gentler on myself during those times. I wish I’d had the foresight to say, “Hey, this is a really hard time for you. Maybe you should cut back in your life and take it really slow for a while.” People who are prone to panic attacks are often people who don’t know how to slow down and set limits. They are often people-pleasers and perfectionists.
I know I am.
I have learned that in order to survive as a person who is vulnerable to panic attacks, I have to practice self-care and self-protection. I have to say no to things that stress me out whenever possible. I have to recognize when my cup runneth over and realize that my body absorbs stress differently than other people, so I may not be able to handle a full plate in the same way that other people do.
Learning about panic attacks themselves can be a godsend to anyone who is suffering. Panic attacks are a physical experience. Yes, they are triggered by life events and scary thoughts, but then they take on a life of their own. When you panic, massive amounts of hormones are released into your body — mostly adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone. It’s the same hormone that would be released if you encountered a lion in the jungle and needed to run away fast.
Except usually, you have nowhere to run, and so you sit there stirring inside with the adrenaline washing through you, freaking you the hell out.
Eventually, the panic reaction will die down. Panic attacks have a beginning, middle, and end. It helps to keep that in mind during an attack, even when you’re feeling like there is no way out.
If you can recognize when an attack is beginning to happen, it is sometimes possible to stop it in its tracks. For me, my first sign of an impending attack is that my breath will start to become shallow, followed by a rapid heartbeat. If I immediately take a couple of deep, exaggerated breaths, I can sometimes stop the crazy hormone release that will land me right smack in the middle of an attack.
I’m not always successful, but sometimes I am. When I am, I am so freaking grateful.
My biggest advice for anyone suffering from panic attacks is to get help. Start with a professional, someone who is trained specifically in the emotional and physiological aspects of anxiety and panic disorder. Medication can help, as can certain therapies and systems geared specifically toward panic disorder. I’m all for alternative therapies too, but when you’re really suffering, you want to seek someone who knows their stuff when it comes to this disorder.
And most of all, remember that you aren’t alone. You aren’t going crazy. You don’t suck. You’re just a little more vulnerable than some people. Usually, that vulnerability goes along with other gifts like empathy, thoughtfulness, creativity, and a deep drive for success.
Panic attacks don’t have to dominate life. You deserve to feel better, and there are ways to get there.