Warning: This post may be triggering if you experience or have experienced panic attacks, panic disorder, and other related symptoms.
It was a Sunday morning several years ago when I first succumbed to a collection of sensations that I could only describe as a panic attack. I was just playing video games with my brother. It was early in the day and I remember drinking coffee. The parents weren’t around, so we could be as loud and as ridiculous as we saw fit. There was nothing that suggested I’d eventually experience panic.
We were still in the middle of playing some Smash Bros. when I felt as if I could faint. It hit so suddenly. My immediate fear was losing consciousness. I started to panic. I also didn’t find any relief in continuing to play as if nothing happened. But I didn’t want to alarm my brother. That was the last thing I wanted to do. No, I just needed to play the game and maybe get a sip of water.
The problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking about fainting. If I fainted, would I even wake up again? Something was terribly wrong. I felt doom like I’d never felt it before. And no matter what, it seemed I wasn’t going to calm down. I had to stop playing; I had to escape my room and change the situation. I was still feeling so weird and was deathly afraid of going through that “near-fainting” sensation again.
My brother was none-the-wiser because I hid it so well. Underneath my shell, I was a mess. I went downstairs and considered my options. It occurred to me that this may be my last day. If I continued to debate what to do, I’d end up doing nothing and possibly die because I didn’t get help in time. Do I try to ride out the weird feeling? Do I call my neighbors and ask them to drive me to the hospital?
I couldn’t figure it out, so I decided to just heat up lunch. After I ate, I started to feel better. Eventually, the sensation passed by and I was back to normal. What happened? Well, I think it was a panic attack based on how I felt. Another possibility might be dehydration (I was drinking coffee instead of water). Regardless, I know that I felt panicked. I felt that I might actually die. I felt worried enough to consider going to the hospital. I ended up okay, but for some time, I couldn’t have known I’d be fine.
That day is one I don’t think I’ll forget anytime soon.
I can see how an overload of anxiety could cause a panic attack. But in my situation, it was a physical catalyst that then produced fresh anxiety. I felt faint, but where did that come from? I still don’t know. And I’ve never had that happen again. What I do know is that I couldn’t have withstood staying in the same place while confronting my symptoms. I had to stop playing. I had to pause. I had to go away and do something else.
Of course, that’s a hallmark of panic attacks. While experiencing the physical symptoms, the sufferer tends to want to escape their surroundings. There may be many reasons for this, some of them social. In my case, if I were to experience panic symptoms (tight chest, shortness of breath, etc.), I’d rather not let anyone know. I’d rather not inconvenience or worry the people around me. I guess this is where my panic might possibly intersect with social anxiety disorder. The very idea of having to admit that I have a problem (panic symptoms) makes me nervous and only adds to the anxiety.
Any time I’ve felt a panic episode, I’ve wanted to escape the feeling of being stuck or restricted. For instance, I used to get what I consider “mini-panic attacks” sometimes when I went to church with my family. Typically, it would be an issue with breathing. My breathing wouldn’t feel normal and I’d assume the worst. A church is a terrible place to experience any feelings of panic. Because until the mass is over, you can’t go anywhere. You’re closed in and surrounded by people. Your body and brain have this impulse to escape, yet you can’t. This means that you have to “sit with” the panic until you’re able to move.
The funny thing is, I’d usually feel better once I was out of church. I think it has a lot to do with being able to escape the environment in which the panic began. That makes sense to me. I mean, if I knew a bear was inside a cave, I’d feel much more panic remaining in the cave as opposed to escaping it.
My second memorable panic episode happened when I was chatting with my best friend while I was in my room. Out of the blue, I felt a weird sensation in my left arm. It didn’t take long for me to conclude that I was suffering from a serious issue such as a stroke. I built up the nerve to tell my parents that I feared something serious was going on. My diagnosis was borne of fear, so of course it was something serious. My parents were concerned, but they weren’t sold on my evaluation of the symptom.
Ultimately, my parents prescribed the best medicine at the time: go to the basement and walk around for a few minutes. I walked laps in the basement and slowly started to feel better. I think it was a combination of two factors that helped me. First, I wasn’t stuck in my room where the panic began. Second, I started moving and forcing myself to focus on something new. With panic, it does take time to center yourself, to anchor the ship. But there are ways to cope until relief comes your way.
Now that I’m older and have experienced two “big” panic moments and a few “mini-panic attacks,” I do feel more equipped to handle panic in the future. I’m not saying it will ever be pleasant. I’m also not saying I can just will the panic out of my system. When a panic episode happens, one must ride it out til the end. The one truth that may help is that every panic attack must come to an end. Even if it is a couple hours, it can’t possibly last forever.
Knowledge has been so helpful to me. It’s important to realize that a troubled mind can produce physical symptoms on the body. A panic attack can make you feel as if breathing is a little more labored, but you’re still getting enough oxygen. You’re still alive and your health is better than your panicked mind says.
Still, I need to make one thing super clear. There is no shame in seeing a doctor or going to a hospital to address the symptoms you feel–even if those symptoms turn out to be reflections of a panic attack. Many, many people with panic issues will go to the hospital only to find that their hearts and lungs are perfectly healthy. It just goes to show how powerful our minds are. They can affect the body in such dramatic ways! Still, panic attacks are not just in your head. They are real and the associated sensations are real. Even if the sensations aren’t representative of a physical illness, the distress they cause is most definitely real and is no joke.
Before I end this post, I have some very basic suggestions of things you can do to help you relax if you sense you’re having a panic attack:
- Reading a book
- Listening to relaxing music or ASMR
- A hot shower
- Taking a walk
- Engaging in something creative (playing music, drawing, cooking, etc.)
It’s good to know what helps you relax. The point of these activities is to redirect your mind’s attention away from the panic associated with the symptoms. I’m sure you could add to my list some other activities that relax or stabilize you. The sky’s the limit.
I just want to say, I know what it’s like to feel like I might be dying, that this breath may be my last. I’ve felt the physical symptoms and assumed the worst so quickly. If you suffer with panic attacks or panic disorder, please know you’re not alone. And when another panic attack strikes, know that you will get through it.