The panic attacks just came out of nowhere. Sure, I’ve had a long history of mental illness with various symptoms, but the panic attacks… these kinds of panic attacks were something else.
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My experience of panic attacks
I remember the first one so clearly. I just could not breathe. My lungs felt totally constricted, I was struggling to get air into my lungs, I felt my insides completely close up as I was wheezing trying to breathe. I grabbed the sideboard and tears were pouring down my face as I was gasping for air. It feels like a lifetime, in reality, it was probably about 10 minutes or so. Although the after-effects of the panic attack last several hours longer.
My panic attacks have been so severe that the ambulance has been called no less than 3 times, including on my wedding day. I cannot explain just how terrifying it is to not be able to breathe. To feel that rising heartbeat, to feel the wave of cold, the hot wet tears pouring out your eyes. And then the humiliation. The utter sadness that your body went through that. And then the blankness, totally blank as your mind and body shut down from exhaustion and you can barely fathom what has just happened.
We talk about panic attacks as if they are ‘just’ a mental illness. But I can tell you for sure, mental illness is totally physical. Panic attacks are a bodily response. It doesn’t matter what the cause is, or if you even know why it is happening, it is a very real and very physical experience.
The conversation around panic attacks, and mental illnesses as a whole need to acknowledge the physical effects. It’s an entirely bodily experience that as a society we still have such little understanding and empathy for.
I have written about the time I had a panic attack on the floor of New Street station. It was one of the most awful experiences I’ve been through. I felt embarrassed, isolated, and vulnerable. It’s not something I was expecting to happen, and the resulting consequences were that I started to avoid doing things on my own, and stopped going to blogging events.
The risk of having a panic attack made me withdraw. I was too worried that it would happen in public or without my husband being there that I avoided any situation that isolated me or made me vulnerable. I kept to myself. Eventually, I stopped leaving the house on my own altogether.
These past few years have been completely isolating. I tell you this not for sympathy or attention (although I think it’s awful that ‘attention-seeking’ is a go-to response when neuro-typical people refer to those with mental illnesses) but to help you understand the very real experience of living with a panic disorder or anxiety.
I used to be confident and perky. I loved socialising and making friends. I enjoyed being part of my industry and being an organiser of events for the blogosphere. I used to be genuinely excited about the prospect of speaking in front of people and sharing everything I learned in my career. I used to love that connection of empowering others in workshops. Sure, I would get anxious, and I was shy/introverted in new situations. But I was also the girl who would go wandering off backpacking around Europe or Southeast Asia on her own many moons ago. I would happily sit and eat dinner in a restaurant on my own. I didn’t let doing things solo stop me from living my life.
I never ever imagined I would be someone who might get panic attacks.
But it happened.
I’ve now been through over a year of psychotherapy and I am finally off my beta-blockers which were used to lower my heart rate. I haven’t had a panic attack for about 6 months and despite occasional rising anxiety levels, my mental state is mostly on an even keel.
And here I am, propped in bed thinking about what I would like to do post-panic disorder and I think I would like to share more of what I learned from this part of my life in the hope it might help some of you.
This is a list of things you can do if you find somebody having a panic attack. It might be someone you know, it could be a total stranger on the floor of a busy train station. Either way, here is how to help somebody having a panic attack.
How to help someone having a panic attack
Reassure them that they are safe and you will stay with them.
Ask them to breathe in and out with you to the count of 4 slowly. This helps with regulating their breathing pattern.
If they still can’t get a breath in, get them to empty their lungs. Suggest they pretend to blow out a candle – this will force the lungs to intake air.
If they are disassociating ask them to name the colour of random objects around them, or ask them to read out the words on something close by. This helps with grounding and disrupting whatever the brain is doing.
Rub their middle back. Ask permission first, if they say yes then just rub their back in a circular motion, this helps relax the lungs to aid the breathing.
Ask if they have any medication on them that might help and find it for them.
Speak in a calm, reassuring tone of voice. Stay with them.
Let them know it will pass and you will be with them.
Ask them to hold their own hands and squeeze.
Or ask them to wiggle their toes or gentle stamp their feet on the ground.
Most importantly, if they cannot breathe call 999, or emergency services in the country you are in. Difficulty breathing is an emergency.
What to do after a panic attack
The effects after a panic attack are often fatigue, tearfulness, and disassociation. For me, I needed help with feeling safe, calm and getting grounded again.
Keep them warm and comfortable, maybe wrap in a blanket
Use scents to help with grounding, maybe put on a scented candle or aromatherapy diffuser
Keep reassuring them that they are safe
Just keep them company
Offer a non-judgemental space to talk freely
These are just a few things on how to help somebody having a panic attack. If you have anything else you would add to the list please do comment below.
It should go without saying but I am not a medical professional in any way. This advice all comes from my own personal experience. If in doubt please call a doctor or emergency services.
If you are experiencing panic attacks please do go to see your GP for support, advice, and possibly medical intervention. If you find it difficult speaking to a GP maybe check out an organisation such as Mind for advice.
Be kind to yourself and others and lots of love to anyone going through panic attacks, panic disorder, or anxiety.