I had a rough week last week. Lots going on right now with things that are out of my control, and I thrive on order and control. I’ll admit, my self-care wasn’t the best either, which usually makes it worse. When these waves of struggle crash around me, sometimes it’s hard to explain the feeling to people that don’t experience anxiety and attention disorders. Well-meaning friends and family members will often tell me to focus on the positive, to “look for the light at the end of the tunnel.” I thought it would be a good idea to explain why that’s actually not only unhelpful, it can make me feel worse. So, here’s what I wish you knew about my panic attacks.
First of all, let’s talk about that tunnel for a minute. If people with mental health disorders felt like they were going through a tunnel, headed toward the light, it would be a relief. It’s horizontal. You can remain upright and walk through a tunnel. A tunnel protects you from the elements, and though it may be dark, it is generally safe. A tunnel is usually created to make an easier path through something else. TUNNELS MAKE SENSE.
When you have a mental health disorder, the bad times don’t feel like you are in a tunnel. Instead, you feel like you have fallen into a deep well. Every inch toward the exit requires excruciating effort, digging in with everything you have, pulling yourself up while trying to gain any kind of footing, slipping and sliding with each try. Knowing in the back of your mind that you are not in a safe place and that another storm could come along at any moment and send you back down to the bottom again. For me, this feeling physically manifests itself as chronic panic attacks.
Panic attacks suck.
I suffered my first panic attack about 5 years ago, and they eventually got so bad that I had trouble leaving my office at work for fear I would experience a panic attack in front of the therapists I managed or in a meeting. I was nauseous when I woke up in the morning and before long was throwing up multiple times a day from the debilitating physical, mental and emotional pain caused by the attacks.
I finally went to a therapist (who shall forever be known as Martha the Great) and was able to get a handle on them to where I could function somewhat normally again, but the next panic attack is never far from my mind. My panic attacks seem to simmer like a pot of water on low on a back burner just waiting for the heat to crank up and the water to boil over. I’ve learned to live with them, but it hasn’t been without loss of sleep, friends, and ultimately a job that I loved. Fortunately, there have been a few positive take-aways too.
Here’s what I’ve learned about panic attacks over the years:
- A panic attack is not an anxiety attack. I hear people say all the time that they have anxiety attacks. As someone who has experienced both, I can assure you they are two different things. Anxiety attacks have a clear cause: maybe you are walking down a dark alley at night, or feel like someone is following you, or you encounter something you are afraid of (snakes, spiders, rollercoasters, clowns.) You might feel your heart race, your chest get tight, and have an overwhelming sense of fear or doom. Your body is giving you signs that you might be in danger. Basically, when you experience an anxiety attack there is a reason your body is telling you to freak out. These attacks are transient and clear quickly once whatever is stressing you out goes away. These are different than the panic attacks are a result of a panic disorder, which is completely different because the body decides to freak out for no apparent reason, or the amount of panic is not justified by the actual experience.
- Panic attacks don’t always have a clear trigger. I can be sitting on my deck on a beautiful sunny spring day, iced tea in hand, listening to the birds singing…and suddenly be struck with overwhelming flood of emotions: fear, doom, anxiety, sadness, terror. The constant fear of having a panic attack sometimes causes me to become isolated, to cancel plans, and to feel like I am walking on eggshells much of the time. Because I have had lots of experience with panic attacks over the years, I know that some events might be more likely to trigger an attack, but I can also experience this trigger and not have an attack.
- Panic attacks are physically painful. Along with the emotional components, I experience crushing chest pain, an inability to breathe, nausea that often leads to vomiting, uncontrollable shaking and a feeling of sharp pins and needles all over my body. Sometimes I get migraines. This can come on as intense pain all of a sudden, or I can feel it building up over time. It hurts.
- Panic attacks can lead to poor self-esteem. Panic attacks make me feel like I can’t control my own emotions, that my body can’t behave, that I am abnormal. After a panic attack, I often feel “broken” and isolated. Because panic attacks make me feel weak, and I don’t want to appear weak in an occupational or leadership setting, I often find myself making lame excuses to cover up for having had an attack, such as when I am too overwhelmed to go to a meeting or an event. This sets up a nasty spiral of self-doubt and poor self-image.
- I can be sitting right beside you having an attack and you might not know it. Having a panic attack is not fun. It’s disruptive and embarrassing and scary. It’s not an endearing trait, and the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself. I once experienced a massive panic attack while celebrating Christmas at my parents’ house. There were 8 adults and 5 kids present in one small room (probably one of the reasons for the attack—one of my triggers is small, cramped, loud spaces), and I continued smiling, opening presents and sweating like a stuck pig. I also dug the fingernails of my right hand so hard into the skin of my left forearm that I still have scars years later. These are people that know me better than anyone else in the world, and the only person that knew I was having an attack was my husband and that was only because I asked him to drop me off at the closest urgent care on the way home.
- Panic attacks are treatable, but not always curable. I started going to Martha the Great (my beloved therapist) when I couldn’t deny that my panic attacks were affecting my ability to effectively do my job. Through sessions filled with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, I was able to get my panic attacks down to a manageable level, but they still come around to visit every once in a while.
- Panic attacks can turn an extrovert into an introvert. Before I started having panic attacks, I loved crowds. I loved going out, meeting friends, hosting parties. Mingling was my jam, and strangers were friends I hadn’t met yet. With the onset of panic attacks, it’s different. When I’m having frequent attacks, or going through something stressful that I am worried is going to cause an attack, I tend to keep to myself. And put me in a small room with a bunch of people and loud noise and I can almost guarantee an attack, so social events in small settings are pretty much out. It’s a bummer but mandatory for me.
- Panic attacks can prompt personality changes. I get tired more easily. I am more wary of new relationships. I don’t trust as easily as I did before. It’s not that I’m not as fun as I used to be—I just weigh the options more before making a “staying in” vs. “going out” decision, and I surround myself with what I consider “safe” people, places, and activities. I get aggravated easier and have less tolerance for cliques, drama, small-talk and what I consider to be bullshit. I’ve lost friends, I’ve stopped getting invited to certain events, I’ve dropped out of some groups and I’ve had to come to terms with this as part of the process.
- Panic attacks put emotions under a microscope. The negative often gets unfairly exaggerated in relationship to the positive. I’ve always been a “glass half full” person. I was never afraid to be silly, to say something ridiculous, or to take a risk. Nowadays, not so much. In fact, it took many sessions with Martha the Great before I didn’t feel like a dark, black cloud was hanging over me ready to rain down at any moment. I still grapple with this feeling occasionally. I have to investigate emotions to see if they match what I am going through, or if they are exaggerated. I can’t trust my own emotions sometimes and that is difficult.
- There are plus-sides to these changes, but I have to look harder to see them. On a positive note, my circle of friends might have grown smaller but they are the most trustworthy, supportive life-giving friends I’ve ever had. Many of them I would not have gotten to know as well if I wasn’t searching for safety and love over popularity and social circles. I no longer feel the need to fit someone else’s definition of what I am supposed to be—panic attacks give you perspective that it’s enough just to keep your own shit together instead of worrying about everyone else’s. I call out crap when I see it instead of worrying how it’s going to be perceived by a certain group. I stand up for myself more and am learning how to ask for space when I need it. Ultimately, these are making me a stronger person.
Mental health disorders are hard, and panic attacks suck. There’s no way around it. Unless you experience them, it is very difficult to understand the strain they put on your physical health as well as emotional health. If you suffer from panic attacks, you can always reach out to me for support—I’m here for you 100%. This is a safe space for you to share your feelings. I get you. I’m here for you.
If you know someone who suffers from panic attacks, give them extra space and love and be sensitive to their needs, even if it might mean a change of plans, or an unexpected cancellation, or a change of venue or activity. Your reluctance to change will crush them, and it could eventually make you feel unsafe to them.
Trust is a very hard thing for someone with panic attacks, and you don’t want to lose it.
On the flip side, your support and willingness to bend for their needs will mean the world to them—we don’t mean to be difficult, and we need to know that you love and support us more than ever.