Before I begin this blog post, I’d like to let you know that this is quite a personal thing for me to write, but I wanted to share this with you as I’m hoping that if you’re reading this as a panic attack sufferer, I may help you in some way. Alternatively, if you are reading this and you know someone who suffers with panic attacks, I hope I can help you get a better understanding and display ways in which you can show support.
Anxiety is an awful emotion to feel, a feeling that cannot be controlled & you are unaware of it creeping up on you. Different levels of anxiety lie in all of us all the time. From a simple thing like “Oh no, I’ve got school/work tomorrow” to something a lot more nerve wracking like a scary job interview or waiting for your appointment at the dentist (I know I’m not the only one). Although anxiety lies in all of us, It affects people in different ways. When we’re stressed, our anxiety levels are much higher and some of us become a lot more sensitive to it. For those of you who are calm, collected and pretty fearless, you will have a much lower anxiety threshold. (I am jealous
of those of you who are like this)
Extremely high levels of anxiety, can, in a lot of people, cause panic attacks, whether you are aware of your anxiety or not.
I’ve suffered with panic attacks for 6 and a half years, and so i’m writing this blog post for those of you who struggle to understand, feel alone, need advice or need someone else to understand.
It’s understandable that not everybody “gets” what a panic attack is. In fact i’m pretty sure more people don’t understand than do, which is really sad. Even some of the people closest to me, struggle to understand exactly how it affects me, or my life, or some decisions that I choose to make. Even after hours of explaining, unless someone has been through a panic attack themselves, they will never truly or fully understand.
What exactly is a panic attack?
A sudden feeling of dread, the sudden urge to push your way through to the nearest exit, the whole room shrinking down around you and everybody staring at you and smothering you. In a split second, without you anticipating it, or knowing it’s going to happen, your body releases adrenaline. This adrenaline is released as your body is preparing for “flight or fight”. Something our brain is programmed to do in a life or death situation. You need adrenaline for a fight in order to be strong, and you need adrenaline for flight, in order to run fast and get away. This would have prepared our cave-dwelling ancestors to fight or run away from danger, but it’s much less appropriate to the stresses we encounter today. Clearly, we are not cavemen any more, and we don’t need to hunt for our food, but this adrenaline is released in situations like tripping over a step, being extremely excited, being on a roller-coaster, being in a fight, In an accident, adrenaline is released into our bodies all the time, but us panic attack sufferers
have a “SENSITIVE ALARM”.
My doctor said: “You are like the car in the street, who’s alarm goes off with the smallest gust of wind, whereas all the other cars, take a good beating before their alarms go off”, and really, that’s the best way it can be described in the very simplest of terms.
What happens during a panic attack?
Adrenaline is released, thus causing your heart to beast faster, and your muscles to tense. We breathe in more oxygen, which our muscles use to turn sugar into energy (even though we don’t need extra energy for anything), Blood is diverted to the muscles, making you pale and light headed. This also causes you to shake. Our digestive system shuts down, making your throat dry and making you feel sick. Your senses are heightened, you become more aware of sounds and smells around you (It’s like someone turned up the volume, and in a busy place, it was loud enough anyway).
When adrenalin floods your body, it can cause a number of different physical and emotional sensations that may affect you during a panic attack:
These may include:
very rapid breathing or feeling unable to breathe
very rapid heartbeat
pains in your chest
feeling faint or dizzy
ringing in your ears
tingling or numbness in your hands and feet
hot or cold flushes
wanting to go to the toilet
feelings of absolute terror
being extremely emotional/uncrontrollable crying
feelings of unreality, called depersonalisation and derealisation.
Panic attacks come on very quickly, symptoms usually peaking within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks last for between 5 and 20 minutes. Some people report attacks lasting for up to an hour, but they are likely to be experiencing one attack after another, or a high level of anxiety after the initial attack. This is what I suffer from, If I ever have a panic attack, it will NEVER last 20 minutes, it will always spiral, until I can be alone, somewhere I feel comfortable, which can sometimes be hours away.
I’m not 100% sure what first triggered my panic attacks, although I will explain it below. The only major downfall for me, was that my brain stored this panic attack away so that when I re-entered a similar situation, my body had learnt to react in the same way.
This is the way I like to describe it:
“Imagine that your brain is filled with hundreds of filing cabinets full of different information. You have memories, things you’ve learnt..etc. Well, there is this one filing cabinet that stores every panic attack you have. Where you had it, what happened, who you were with, what you were doing, what you were eating, what you were drinking, everything. When you re-enter the same place, with the same people, or do the same thing, that cabinet unlocks, and releases the same adrenaline, and the same emotion. My brain thinks it’s protecting me, by making me “Fight or flight” in the same situation”
Almost as though your brain has trained itself to react in this way. Which is annoying, and can be undone (more on that later)
For me, this happened in nightclubs, pubs, around drunk people and around alcohol. The reason being that my first major panic attack, was at a house party, in the middle of nowhere, which got completely out of hand. I was with friends but everybody was so drunk that I may aswell have been on my own. I wasn’t drunk, but my then-boyfriend was, and he passed out and fell asleep, leaving me awake, and sober. All my friends were drunk also. Please bare in mind, I was 15, as were most of the people around me, and this was a serious case of irresponsible drinking and drug taking (not on my part i’d like to add). I didn’t know a lot of the people there and I remember this one boy who had diabetes (the more serious type) and everyone was making a massive who-ha about him being VERY drunk. I was trying to sleep in a bedroom with my boyfriend passed out next to me, and another friend had fallen asleep as well, so it was silent, and away from the chaos. The next thing I remember was that I could hear someone violently being sick and lots of people freaking out. The diabetic boy was paraletic, vomming everywhere and needed sugar. Everyone kept running into the room asking me for help, and I didnt have a clue. I remember I kept saying “Give him lemonade, no point giving him food he isn’t keeping anything down”. It was then that I had a massive panic attack. Was it because someone was being sick (I have a phobia of sick – even more so now than back then), was it the chaos and the fact that ambulances arrived or being surrounded by people who were so out of it in a serious situation and being the only one that could see straight. Whatever it was, I lay there from 11.30pm until 5am, having panic attack, after panic attack. Shaking violently. I felt trapped, as the toilet was opposite the bedroom door, and I knew I couldn’t go home because that meant walking past all the comotion and the sick. So I just lay there. trapped and panicking for 5 and a half hours. When it started getting light, and I felt phsyically exhausted (having a panic attack makes you feel like you’ve run a marathon) and I called my dad who kindly came and rescued me.
Now you know why I don’t really drink, and why I’d much rather stay in watching crappy TV than have a night out. Is this how I want to be? No. I’d love to get dressed up, get some heels on, go out and have a few drinks, maybe even get completely sozzled once in a while. This is what girls my age do right?
Even now, when I think back, all those nights I tried my hardest to walk into a club/pub feeling positive that nothing would go wrong, and end up having to run out. I really did try, I tried to put on a brave face and act like nothing would happen & I tried to tell myself it was all in my head
and nothing was dangerous and as long as you don’t think about it, you’ll be fine. But it’s not your choice. I don’t think my friends understood, and in all fairness, I guess I didn’t really explain as I wasn’t sure myself why this kept happening to me. They started off inviting me out lots, and gradually, I’d just end up saying no for the fear of having an attack, until they gave up inviting me all together. This upset me, as I felt as though they probably thought I didn’t want to be there, or maybe they didn’t want me there, who wants a panic attack sufferer as a massive burden on a fun night out? I was missing out, and I hated it because it wasn’t anything I could control.
For a while, I couldn’t even go to a quiet pub for a few drinks. What a boring sod I was. I’d also like to point out, this was around the time we all turned 18 and started “properly going out”. So many things contributed towards my attacks becoming worse. I didn’t want to end up being severly agoraphobic (in serious cases can mean you are affraid to leave the house) so I really did try to force myself, which in some very rare cases, didn’t ever result in me panicking, but then there were always the few incidents where I would feel so much worse, and felt as though I’d taken a back step. My ex boyfriend (different to the first I previously mentioned), used to invite me out with his friends to the pub etc, which I liked, and of course I wanted to socialise with new people and make the effort (being the good girlfriend I am) so I’d go. One of his best friends, who happened to be there a lot of the time, managed to pop himself in my filing cabinet of “things to panic from”. I hope he doesn’t ever read this and feel bad, haha. I once felt panicky, and my ex explained to him that I was panicking (instead of deciding I was more important than a pint and taking me home), and I just sat there, whilst he asked me pointless, patronising questions to try and distract me. (trust me, things like this do not work). I felt like an idiot, like it was some funny game, when really all I wanted to do was leave. That same friend was there on a quiet night out, which resulted in me getting up from the table and walking out without an explanation. The thing that topped it all off though, was the time he got so drunk, he vomited all over himself, then strolled back into the pub for another pint. Again, you will notice a pattern here? Sick. Drunk. Pub. After this, I couldn’t bare to go anywhere with him. He is such a lovely guy too, but I couldn’t control it, whenever he was there, my brain would let me know I was in danger and release the adrenaline.
Something people don’t seem to realise, is that self esteem is seriously dented from suffering these attacks. I still, to this day, think that people judge me, and that they possibly all talk about how weird I am, or how annoying I am for having panic attacks, or even that they may think you make it up, or are using as an excuse. You start to think that you are ruining everyone else’s life around you & have become a nuisance.
I’d turn things down ALL THE TIME, but it’s not because I didn’t want to go, I wanted to go more than anything, I just COULDN’T put myself in any situation where I felt I may have panicked. I’m going to list places I’ve had panic attacks before, as I want to express that they won’t just happen when you anticipate them, but they can literally just spring on you, anywhere…
In bed at night
In a supermarket
In a pub
In a club
In a taxi
On a bus
On a tube
On a train
At the train station
In a restaurant
At a friends house
At a family members house
In a car
On a boat
That’s all I can really think of for now, but there have been endless places where I’ve suffered a panic attack. Only when I was at my worst would I walk into a supermarket, or go to someone’s house and panic. More recently, I’ve been a lot better, and I’ve found that I only really panic if I am placed in a situation where I cannot get out easily if I was to ever panic. (Train, Tube, Boat, Work, Club, Bus) More recently, as you will know, I was invited to go on the London eye with GlossyBox, and I cannot tell you how much I stressed over that. It’s my worst nightmare, being inside a glass pod, that’s locked, with lots of people, knowing that once that door closed, I was stuck in there, and if i were to panic, there would be no way of me getting off, and everyone would look at me, and think, what an idiot. Only Louise, and my boyfriend knew how anxious I was about it, but I wanted so desperately to get on it, and to see people, and I did, and I was fine. I was really proud of myself, for not throwing in the towel and missing out on an opportunity, and for doing it anyway. So many people live in fear of ever having an attack, and I think this is what makes life more difficult. For a while, I kept having panic attacks on the tube, and on the train home from London. Being that my boyfriend lives there, this devastated me. WHY WAS MY BRAIN FILING THIS AS A DANGEROUS SITUATION. I would cry, and think “I can’t go. I can’t go and see my boyfriend. I’m scared to get on a train. Why can’t I just be normal“.
One thing a lot of people don’t understand, is that people who suffer panic attacks, DO NOT WANT TO FEEL THIS WAY. We don’t want to get on a train and think “I really hope I get to the other end without panicking”, we don’t want to restrict the way we live because of something we can’t control that leaves us feeling mentally and physically drained for days/weeks/months on end. We want to be normal, and carry on with our everyday lives without any added anxiety. I’d love to be able to say “I don’t worry about anything, besides the normal things”. After a panic attack, I feel so upset, but it’s mostly anger. Angry at myself for not having any control and angry that I don’t know how to make it stop. Then I feel angry because I feel like nobody understands.
What helps me?
When I’m actually having a panic attack, I find the only things that really take the edge off, are going outside, walking away from the place I was and fanning myself (I know this sounds weird, and probably looks it, but when you have so much adrenaline and your muscles are pumped, you should do some form of exercise to use the adrenaline, which is why i frantically fan myself or walk or knock my knees together or flap my arms around – discreet? I think not) Fanning also helps with the horrible hot flushes you’ll experience, and cool you down.
Slow, deep breathing.
If i’m with someone, I need them to stay quiet unless I ask them something. I can’t handle anyone talking to me, or trying to distract me, or working me up. At the time of a panic attack, I don’t need someone highlighting the fact I’m panicking by making me say the alphabet backwards. It’s nice to know someone is with you, but If I’m having a panic attack, I’m already hearing everything 10x louder and need to try and calm down. You also don’t have a lot of energy to speak, as any energy you do have, is being used everywhere else.
In terms of long term treatment, stupidly, for 6 and half years, I put off going to a doctor, because I thought that I’d be able to control them myself. When I started having panic attacks visiting my boyfriend, I knew I had to do something about it, as it was hindering my way of life, and everyday things i really wanted to do, and I got fed up, and decided to make an appointment at my doctors surgery. Unfortunately, this completely destroyed any faith I had as it was the most pointless hour of my life. She sat and explained to me what a panic attack was. Funnily enough, after 6 and a half years of experiencing them, I already had a pretty clear idea. I have also been reading a few books. I’d really recommend the one I have photographed, and even for your partner, family member or friends to read. Have a look on line for self help books, some are a load of tosh, but some are quite eye opening. I don’t take any medication for my panic attacks, mainly because my doctor said “I don’t think we should put you on anything, how about you try some from a chemist or something”..er..great. I take Kalms, but whether they work or not, I don’t know. In all honesty, I’m not all too pleased with my Dr’s approach, or the NHS. They’ve not been helpful at all. This may not be the case for you, but I think in order to get further treatment I am going to have to go private for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Re-training the brain) or try hypnotherapy techniques. If any of you have had any experiences you want to share, please do. Not just for me to read, but others reading the comments.
For many people, the only way they can avoid having a panic attack, is literally sitting at home and never leaving the house. I never want to get this bad, but I can see how it would happen very easily with a lot of people. My panic attacks are a lot worse when I am stressed, or run-down, so I find it’s really important to give myself a break. For many people that means taking time off work or going on holiday. I just make sure I get enough sleep, try to be as organised as possible and don’t rush anywhere. You may think the last one is a given, but for a while, being in “fast-pace” London made everything a lot worse. In the mornings before I’d leave to go home, Me and my boyfriend decided we would get ready slowly, walk slowly and even wait for the next tube if we weren’t there in time (I literally didn’t rush anywhere for about 4 weeks) & this made SUCH a difference.
I also tend to listen to relaxing music before I know I need to go somewhere where I may panic. A favourite of mine recently has been Dianna Vickers’ album (Her voice, I appreciate, could have an adverse affect on some people – but i find it keeps me calm because there are no fast beats or shouty bits) So find something you find relaxing.
I also think it’s important to write down how you are feeling if you feel like you are about to panic. Once when I was on the tube, I started having a panic attack, so I whacked out my phone and started frantically writing how I felt and every time something changed mentally or physically, I’d write it. This weirdly, calmed me down a lot quicker. I don’t know if this is because it distracted me, or because it made everything slightly more logical.
I still can’t really go out and drink with friends but I’ve not been as bad recently. I do find however, that driving (so i know I can leave when I want), or having someone who is prepared to pick me up, makes things a lot less tense. Knowing I can get home if I do panic, puts me at ease. If you were to tell me we were all getting a taxi at 3am an hour from home, I’d freak out.
I don’t like to have set times for things, as I feel a bit trapped. Sounds weird, but i’m sure plenty of you know exactly what I mean. I won’t even book an advanced train ticket any more (even though they are slightly cheaper), I get a ticket which gives me a bit of lee-way so I don’t have to rush anywhere or be stuck to one time.
I think everyone will have their own individual ways of avoiding and banishing panic attacks, it’s really whatever works best for you, but I think “Taking it easy” really is the best advice I can give. You don’t want to overwork your heart, as this may bring on panic.
How can I help someone who suffers Panic Attacks?
I’m going to do a little section here, on how to help someone who is having a panic attack, or someone who suffers them quite a lot. I looked online for something similar to this to show my boyfriend, and I didn’t have much luck. So I’m going to write this myself, in the hope some of you will show this to your partners/friends/family and then they can feel a little more at ease about how to help you. Although it sucks having a panic attack, I can’t imagine standing next to someone feeling helpless feels very nice either.
1. Remain calm. There is nothing worse than being with someone who is freaking out whilst they are, they will never calm down if you are flapping about like a headless chicken.
2. Do not be forceful. Be patient, and accepting. Do not settle for them panicking and being affected alone.
3. Let them do things at their own pace.
4. Don’t make assumptions about what the panicker needs, ask them.
5. Find something positive in every experience. If the affected person is only able to go partway to a particular goal, such as the cinema or out for a coffee, consider that an achievement rather than a failure.
6. Remember that they don’t choose to be this way. Do not show any dissapointment or annoyance when panic strikes or if they don’t feel they can’t do something.
7. In a panic attack, DON’T say:
“Relax. Calm down. Don’t be anxious. Let’s see if you can do this (i.e., setting up a test for the affected person). You can fight this. What should we do next? Don’t be ridiculous. You have to stay. Don’t be a coward. Pull yourself together, Stop being silly, what’s wrong with you”.
Instead, DO SAY:
“You can do it no matter how you feel. I am proud of you. Tell me what you need now. Breathe slow and low. Stay in the present. It’s not the place that’s bothering you, it’s the thought. I know that what you are feeling is painful, but it’s not dangerous. You are courageous. Remember that panic attacks only last a maximum of 20 minutes”
8. Do not try to distract them with stupid questions. As I said before, we don’t want to say the alphabet backwards or talk about our day, it just highlights the fact that we are having a panic attack, thus creating more panic.
9. Be supportive & reassuring. After a panic attack, the person can feel down, depressed, angry, insecure and with very low self esteem. It’s your job to help them to feel better about themselves and to let them know you are there.
I really hope I have managed to cover everything, and I hope this has helped some of you. If you’re reading this, and you really feel down and depressed about your panic attacks and the way it has affected your life, please remember…
You are not alone, panic attacks are VERY common, and although terrifying, will not kill you. Don’t let your attacks ruin your confidence or dent your self esteem, you are an amazing person, and you CAN stop them, with the right treatment and techniques. Do not force yourself to go somewhere you don’t feel comfortable, you and your health are far more important than keeping someone else happy. If someone close to you fails to understand, it can leave you feeling terribly alone and insecure, FORCE them to read this blog post and tell them I’ll kick their bottom if they don’t LISTEN and show as much support as possible.
That’s all from me. Please share experience’s and leave comments below, it won’t just help me, but will also help others just like you reading this blogpost.