I never thought I suffered from panic attacks. Whenever I imagined panic attacks I would think about hysterical people hyperventilating into paper bags, and I certainly hadn’t done that.
The week before last I had seven panic attacks.
So, yes I do suffer from them. Usually I would suffer about seven in a month, so that week was a really difficult week for me.
My panic attacks aren’t what I thought panic attacks were. I did not appreciate how diverse panic attacks are in their manifestation and how they are experienced. Mine doesn’t involve exaggerated breathing which I thought was the essential component of all panic attacks- your attacks may do, and this is absolutely fine. I also only experience hysterical crying occasionally, and mostly out of pure relief that it is over.
When I experience a panic attack, I freeze. I am unable to move. My thoughts pause- and those few thoughts I have, of wanting this to stop and of being absolutely petrified, are not able to make it to my mouth. I can’t talk. Which for someone who relies on talking to people about how I am feeling as a basic coping mechanism, becomes very scary.
Because I am so scared my heart rate rises further still. I feel heat build up around my heart. It feels like it is burning, and my chest is tightening.
Usually I experience panic attacks in very specific circumstances. If I am experiencing conflict, raised voices or if I believe that I have done something wrong, this can trigger an attack. After an attack has subsided, and I am more rational, I can see that in most cases the catalyst has either been exaggerated in my head or can recognise my brain and body trying to form some sort of defence to things I am fearful of.
However, seven in a week was new. The scariest thing was that most of them had no recognisable triggers.
I had one in a meeting, and I was unable to contribute to discussions even if I wanted to. I also had one two hours later on the tube, and couldn’t get off the tube at my stop and travelled a further seven stops before I could move. I was on the verge of one earlier this week when my heartwas beating so fast in the dentist’s chair I thought I was going to die, which I didn’t understand because I wasn’t nervous (turns out having anaesthetic injections in your bottom jaw releases more adrenaline than the top- who knew?). I had one at the opticians when they do that awful thing of blowing air into your eye, and I had one after the opticians when I had to administer my first lot of 4 eye drops per day, and I was too scared.
I don’t really tell anyone about my panic attacks when theyare happening, or if they have just happened. Perhaps I will talk about it much later, almost anecdotally. Partners usually find out, because I am there having a panic attack in front of them and I have to explain either why I was frozen for so long or have burst into tears at the relief of being able to speak again. I am rarely lost for words, so they are incredibly noticeable!
In trying to manage these attacks, or understanding the triggers of the attacks to prevent them from happening as best I can, I have found solace in realising that many people have panic attacks in many different ways. I have also been able to learn more about myself from researching panic attacks, and speaking to health professionals.
The numb or ‘checked out’ feelings that I experience in my panic attacks are likely linked to my feelings of disassociation. I have ‘disassociation amnesia’ which means I have gaps in my memory, as a defence mechanism associated with trauma recovery. When I panic I feel trapped in a motionless body, or disassociated from myself.
The only way I have found to deal with them so far is to ride them out, to wait until I can speak, or move. I wait until the voice yelling ‘I can’t do this’ quietens and I don’t feel like I’m going to explode, or die, or just be trapped like this forever. This is only ever helped by people talking to me, but because I don’t ever tell anyone about my panic attacks, this is rarely an option. I only have one good friend who is able to do that, and who has really experienced my panic attacks in the way they currently manifest themselves, and ironically they aren’t a huge fan of talking! But I am so appreciative of each and every time they let me wait it out, and talk to me, without pushing me out of it.
I am not really sure what is the best way to tackle my panic attacks. Be able to notice my triggers to avoid attacks? Be able to handle the symptoms easier? Deal with the triggers? I imagine all three, with the latter being a long term process which I am working hard on. I hope one day they either become less frequent or more bearable.
I have found many online resources which have helped me understand panic attacks more. My favourite one is from Mind where you will find information if you are suffering from panic attacks, or want to support and understand if someone you care for.