Like anyone with severe anxiety, I’ve had my share of panic attacks. Some of these happen during stressful situations, during times when I feel genuinely threatened, or they may happen when I’m cosy in my bed, for no apparent reason.
People get different reactions during panic attacks, some feel shaky and sweaty, others feel tingly and can feel their heartbeat increase. Often people describe it as being blurry, as if the world around you has slowed down, as if you are underwater and sounds don’t happen properly.
My experience of panic attacks are fairly similar, I often feel extremely uncomfortable heart palpitations, one time I remember trying to take my pulse and it was more of a vibration than a beat it was going so fast. I get fuzzy vision and hearing, peoples voices sound muffled, as though they are talking with a duvet in their mouth and things around me look distorted, like in those joke mirrors at fair grounds and stuff that make you tall or fat or whatever. I also get a prickling tingly feeling all over my body, as if I’m being poked all over with blunt pencils.
Unless the attack is brought on by something suddenly scaring me, I can often tell when one is going to happen, though I know not everyone can. I can tell because I have a strange dropping sensation in my chest and stomach, like when you’re on those rides that take you up high then drop you down quickly. This is often paired with ringing in my ears, like when you go through a tunnel on a train or your ears pop on an air-plane. This is only if the attack is random, if there is a reason, it’s quite different, much worse.
This year I went to the Bristol balloon fiesta with some friends, something I loved to do as a child but now is a bit more difficult due to pain and anxiety and soon. One of my friends knew of my situations so she encouraged me to go, saying she would take care of me, and she really did. Only problem was, a couple of the guys that went with us, were nice people, but unaware of my issues. It was getting towards evening and we had found a place to “camp” while waiting for night glow to start. We collectively had a lot of rubbish and I was feeling pretty proud of myself for not having freaked out yet, so I decided to take it all to the bins for us. I could see them from where we were sat and although I was scared and freaked out by how many people were around all shouting and who had had a few drinks, I pushed myself to do it, telling myself it would all do fine.
I made my way calmly to the bin, steadying my breathing as I did, making sure not to look anyone in the eyes, focusing only on the bins. I got there, put our things in a turned around. Everything was still OK, nothing to worry about, I could see my friends from where I was and started slowly making my way over, making sure not to rush because rushing would make me feel like I was being chased and would freak me out.
I was only a couple on metres away from my friends when I heard a yell behind me and something jumped on my back. Absolute undiluted terror rocketed through me, I cannot even explain the fear I felt, I thought my heart had been ripped apart as it jolted in my chest. My knees gave out and the weight on my back increased before disappearing. I was vaguely aware of a figure moving past me towards my friends. I didn’t even register that it was a guy from our group who had tried to “surprise” me. I simply fell onto my knees, ignoring the cold ground, the mud, the mess. I couldn’t breathe; my lungs were pulled tight as though they had been closed off. I could hear someone calling my name sort of but it was all fuzzy and strange.
I had my arms wrapped around myself and from the tension in my throat; I knew I must be screaming. My body felt hot and tingly, I thought I was burning. Something grabbed me and funnily enough though I couldn’t see or hear properly, I could tell by the perfume that it was my friend who had been helping me. She pulled me towards her, kneeling down in my mud with me and slowly managed to get me to time my breaths with hers. It hurt and took some time, but finally she had me back in the land of the sane. It was then that I realised I must have been crying as my face was wet, though too be honest, more than anything I felt so embarrassed to have caused such a scene in public. I could barely lift my head out of shame.
The guy who had scared me was really sweet and apologetic, he bought me an ice-cream, even though I felt sick and couldn’t finish it; it’s the thought that counts.
That was the worst attack I’ve had in some time, mainly because it was brought on suddenly, as I said before if I can feel them coming, I’m able to take myself away from people, often hiding in toilet cubicles until I’m calm. That was what I did through secondary school; I was having attacks every day, sometimes several times an hour and would spend most of my time in the toilets. The school had upgraded before I got there and had new sets of toilets in which were each separate cubicles with sinks so I wasn’t like a communal area, I could make as much noise as I needed there.
Trying to get over panic attacks on your own, is not fun, especially as when I started having them, I didn’t know what they were, I had never heard of them before. I thought I was losing my mind, I was so scared. It was only when I searched the symptoms that I realised what had been happening. I tried several breathing exercises but they never helped, mainly because as soon as I started concentrating on my breathing, my mins seemed to go insane, telling me I wasn’t breathing properly, which would often just lead right into another attack.
The only breathing technique I found any use was one where you count breaths up to ten. For example, in, 1 out, 2, in, 3, out, 4 and so on. I think the reason this worked is because you don’t have to breathe slowly or quickly or in time to anything; so many techniques are like “breathe in count to three, breathe out, count to three.” And they made me panic that I wasn’t getting enough air. When you have a panic attack you feel like you aren’t getting enough air, so counting before taking another breath can be difficult if you feel the need to gasp for oxygen. Counting each breath to ten though, allows you to breathe as quickly or slowly as you want, but you are still concentrating on something other than your body. It helps me to concentrate on the numbers, and by stopping at ten each time, it’s harder for me to lose my place in my counting, which would just frustrate me even more.
There’s no quick fix for panic attacks unfortunately, there’s no sure way to calm someone down, it really just depends on each person. For example someone reading this may think “I like doing the take a breath and count to three technique.” And if that’s the case then great, whatever works for you, do that. But also, if none of the techniques mentioned help, don’t panic (is that a pun?) you’ll find something to help you.
It took me a long time to find a technique that helped me, in fact, the “counting to ten” technique is something I’ve only just worked out in the past few months, and I’ve been having attacks for 10 years now. I strongly recommend an app called Headspace which works on calming techniques, if you try out a few of these while you’re fairly calm and see what works for you, then when you have attacks you already have a few things you can try to help yourself calm down. I got the counting to ten technique form there too, so there might be something that helps you on there! There are also lots of calming videos all over the internet which are things like “imagine you’re on a beach” which I know are pretty cliché but if it works, don’t knock it, and definitely don’t knock it till you’ve tried.
There are lots of different things you can do and learn to help yourself in panicking situations, it’s just a matter of finding ones that suit you, but don’t give up even though it may take a while. Thankfully, everyone is trying so hard to raise awareness for mental health problems, that there’s a treasure trove of information all over the internet. So get your shovel and go digging, anything that precious is worth searching for.