What had happened left me in a hospital bed, breathing into a paper bag.
Trigger warning: This article is about how I managed to cope with panic attacks. I write about what worked for me, and by no means am I giving professional advice. If you find this article distressing, you do not have to read it: your mental health comes first.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how important mental health is and how external events can impact our well-being. Yet, many experiences are still misunderstood and undervalued. One of them is suffering from panic attacks.
Some of the things that people, even loved ones, have said to me while I was experiencing a panic attack are:
- It's all in your head. Relax.
- You’re just too stressed. Relax.
- Now, don't think about it. It will go away. Relax.
I wish it were that simple to "relax." And yes, it was in my head, but also my body.
The intense fear or discomfort that a panic attack provokes had both mental and physical repercussions.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides an extensive list of panic symptoms, including palpitations, pounding heart, trembling, shaking, chest pain, derealization, sweating, feelings of choking, and more.
The same symptoms and further explanations can be found on other websites. However, if you want to inform yourself, make sure the websites you use are recognized and reliable.
It is also important for you not to rely on websites in place of a medical diagnosis. While they are great tools to provide you with precious information, they don’t substitute health professionals.
When someone who has never experienced a panic attack asks me how it felt, I say, "Imagine you are in front of a lion. No cage and the lion is hungry. How would you react? You’d probably be terrified and run away. To me, having a panic attack felt exactly like that. Only, the lion appeared when I least expected it, and I couldn't see it. I could only feel it.”
How do I know that I am having a panic attack and not an anxiety attack?
Basically, in a person experiencing a panic attack, the “fight or flight” response gets activated even if there is no actual fight.
Although everyone reacts differently, panic attacks usually come unforeseen, have their peak in a short time (usually around 10 minutes), and have stronger symptoms than anxiety attacks.
On the other hand, anxiety attacks have triggers (something internal or external that sparks the attack), usually, last longer, and are associated with an extended period of intense worrying.
This does not mean that anxiety attacks are less severe than panic attacks. And according to Medical News Today, panic attacks can also be expected. That was my case.
One summer, I found myself in a very stressful situation. I was in a new country, stuck in a relationship that was not working anymore, and facing a critical decision: should I study abroad or go back home? I remember postponing it week after week until it couldn’t wait any longer.
I was sitting on a tram on a hot day when I suddenly felt pain in my chest. I wondered if I was having a stroke. Was this pain normal? I knew that my heart was okay, but it felt like a massive brick was in my chest.
Once I got home, I waited to see if the situation improved. When it didn’t, I went to the emergency room.
And there, as I found myself in the waiting line, my mind stopped working in the way I was used to.
I started to shake and cry, to stutter and feel scared. The medical aid saw me and immediately brought me to a room.
I remember fearing for my life. But why? What had happened to me that I found myself lying in a hospital bed, breathing into a paper bag?
After about 20 minutes, the symptoms faded.
Once I got back home, I felt as if I had run a marathon – completely exhausted.
A cycle of fear began.
Fear of dying. Fear of fainting. Fear of being alone.
As I am writing these lines, it's hard to believe I was that person.
I could not predict when panic attacks would occur, but I began to recognize all my triggers.
The heat and being on public transport (usually the train) would make my heart race.
Once again, the invisible lion would tell me that he was there, ready to eat me.
What should I do if I am experiencing a panic attack?
Although panic attacks are not deadly, my first suggestion is not to ignore them.
I know that saying “relax” to a person experiencing a panic attack is pointless, so instead, try to focus on taking deep long breaths.
If you experience several panic attacks, acknowledge them and seek support. I know that asking for help is not the easiest thing and usually involves money, but I also know that reaching out can make a big difference.
I am a big fan of mental health professionals aligned with cognitive behavioral therapy. At the same time, I recognize that this is not the only solution. Therapy is a vast world, so make sure to take all the time you need to explore it.
If you want to ask the help of a mental health professional, don't put all of your hopes in one person. See this as an investment in yourself!
While having the assistance of a professional is incredibly important, it's you who has to do the job.
It’s also essential to have the right support system.
When I talked about panic attacks at home, I did not feel understood, and that hurt.
Opening up to my friends was the best thing I could have done to help myself.
I was astonished to hear how many of them went through panic attacks or a period of distress. I know that opening up is hard and that many fear being judged. However, your friends should know about the challenges you are facing. Open communication is beneficial to both of you.
Only by knowing what you are going through can they support you in the best possible way.
Is there anything I can do to improve the situation?
During that challenging time, I discovered numerous resources: books offering practical advice and exercises, meditation targeted at reducing anxiety and improving the quality of my sleep and walks in nature, to name a few.
After you have found some soothing tools like these, try to do those things you are afraid of doing at your own pace. In my case, my biggest fear was taking a train because I connected it with severe panic attacks.
I started by taking the bus. Then, I organized a trip with a friend by train.
The first time I retook the train by myself, I was anxious. I remembered that invisible lion, but I knew how to cope with him this time. My psychotherapist had helped me envision particularly triggering situations and focus on different sensations, like my breathing or something else that helped calm me.
I brought a good book with me, and I didn't experience a panic attack.
I wish I could tell you that my attacks ended after that, but that's not true.
A few months after that train ride, I experienced a couple more. But their severity had decreased, and I could cope with them.
Will panic attacks ever go away?
Some people believe that the ultimate goal is to learn to cope with panic attacks. Others think it’s possible never to experience them again.
I know for sure that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and that small victories have to be celebrated. Recovery is an individual process.
If you are going through panic attacks, I feel you. And I am here to tell you to take good care of yourself during this time. You are much stronger than you believe you are.
If you are struggling with your mental health, you can call:
The Panic Disorder Information Hotline (1-800-64-PANIC (72642))
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255)
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline (1-800-950-NAMI (6264))
The Trevor Project for the LGBTQ+ population and youth (1-866-488-7386)
Or the National Emergency number (911) for immediate help.