Is It Time To Panic? A Journey Through Panic Attacks, Recovery, And Life Lessons
I remember the first time I had a panic attack.
It was late and probably past the point where staying awake could have been considered productive. I was tired and had been feeling unnaturally stressed and anxious for the better portion of the evening.
An argument with a loved one earlier in the night had triggered some painful and powerful emotions in me which amplified my anxiety. Even after the initial dispute had settled down, the stress of it lingered and I could feel my heart rate beginning to climb with feverish intensity. My head pounded. Sweat beaded my forehead. I even had difficulty articulating as adrenaline flooded my nervous system. Like a tea kettle reaching a boil – I snapped.
I broke down into a frenzy of uncontrollable sobs and convulsions. I gasped for air like a fish out of water and shook with violent ferocity. All I could do was tuck my head between my legs and wait for the terrifying and paralyzing sense of dread to pass through my body.
Eventually it ended and my breathing slowed down. My body relaxed and I began to feel somewhat normal again. After about 30 minutes, I regained the confidence to speak. I wasn’t sure why any of this had happened, but I survived my first panic attack.
I’ve had a few panic attacks since that night nearly 5 years ago. As I’ve gotten older and reflected on each episode, I’ve learned a lot about them. My hope is that sharing my experience can help anyone else going through something similar. You’re not alone, and my heart goes out to you.
I’ve observed that stress from a specific type of challenging situation tends to trigger them – in my case, extreme tension between myself and someone I care about. That’s not to say that’s the ONLY emotionally stressful situation that triggers them, but it’s been the most consistent. Luckily, I’ve only experienced a few of these episodes and my panic attacks have been fairly infrequent and spaced out. When they do occur, I’ve noticed that they tend to be prefaced by a powerful and unnatural sense of anxiety – one that’s difficult to pinpoint on anything. Usually I had been feeling oddly anxious earlier in the day or week, although this is not always the case.
The catalyst for a panic attack seems to be anxiety coupled with emotional distress. Once sparked, some of the physical signs leading up to one include:
- Intense anxiety.
- A steadily increasing heart rate.
- Profuse sweating.
- Rapid breathing.
- Difficulty speaking.
- An overwhelming sense of trepidation.
I suppose there are probably a few other tells, but I’m fortunate to be a fair bit removed from a panic attack so my memory is not as fresh. I think it’s also important to note that the signs I’ve just listed do not always result in a full blown attack. I’ll compare it to an elevator ride – you’re not sure whether you’re going to get off safely on the second floor or ride all the way to the top. Even though it usually doesn’t result in a full blown panic attack, when it does I’ve experienced:
- Uncontrollable and violent trembling and sobbing.
- Rapid and labored breathing, especially when it comes to inhalation.
- Even more sweating (gross, I know).
- The inability to move, think, or speak.
- An awful sense of dread – like I’m dying or my world is falling apart.
The physical symptoms can be pretty awful, and if you’ve ever had a panic attack or known someone who has, I’m sure you can relate. Emotionally, they can be just as devastating.
Following my first panic attack, I was confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before and it just didn’t add up. I was, to my knowledge, a healthy individual. I had a strong support system. I had a passion for life, did well in school, and possessed a nearly flawless track record of physical and mental health. Why was I, a young man, having any of this happen?
It was easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there was something wrong with me. While I can’t attribute all of my behavior to this single incident, I found myself spiraling into a sort of depression.
I became increasingly withdrawn, reclusive, irritable, unmotivated, and lethargic. Even though I was going to school out of town, living in the dorms, and doing a lot of “cool” stuff, I felt like I had lost much of my zeal for life. I was also facing some unrelated and unexpected health concerns which made everything that much more difficult.
I knew something was wrong and eventually mustered up the courage to ask for help. I reached out to my friends and family, let them know what I was going through, and took actions to start getting my life back on track. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually prevailed and have been doing well ever since. Not every day goes as I’d like it to, but I’m happy to report that I have a strong handle on my mental and emotional health and haven’t had a full blown panic attack in over a year and a half.
What Can You Do?
The topic of mental and emotional health can be confusing and uncomfortable. Science and research still hasn’t cracked the code and the topic receives a high degree of stigmatization. While I do have some ideas on how to handle some of these issues, my experience is highly subjective and in no way substitutes the expertise of a licensed professional.
I strongly encourage you to seek professional help if you experience panic attacks, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, or any other mental or emotional health concerns. There are people and resources out there dedicated to providing you the knowledge and tools necessary to improve your quality of life. It can be challenging and even embarrassing to reach out for help, but you’ll be so glad you did.
Practical Methods for Preventing and Overcoming Panic Attacks
- Focus your attention on one thing (a wall, your phone, a pillow, etc.), remain relatively still, and breathe deeply and methodically. I’ve found that just staring at something and focusing on my breathing helps quiet my mind.
- Be aware of any anxiety you may have and be proactive in finding a comfortable and calm environment if it starts creeping upwards. I like to sit on a bed or couch when it starts peaking and take a walk outside when it subsides a bit.
- Embrace the feeling, don’t fight it. Have you ever started feeling anxious about the fact that you’re feeling anxious? Yeah, try not to do that.
- Be honest with people about how you’re feeling/what you need if you’re in the company of others. Don’t be afraid to tell someone you need a couple minutes to sit by yourself while you wait for things to calm down.
- Let thoughts pass through your mind, don’t obsess or focus on any single one. Usually the thoughts I latch onto are the exact thoughts that are stressing me out in the first place. Allow your mind to wander to other things.
- If you find yourself in the midst of a full blown panic attack, wait it out, remember it’s just a panic attack, and seek support afterwards. Talking with a loved one after or even before a panic attack can be amazingly cathartic.
- Don’t define yourself by your condition. Maybe you have panic attacks or depression – that doesn’t mean you ARE panic attacks or depression. We have the amazing capacity to decide who we want to be, so use that to your advantage and take control of your life. At the same time, don’t be ignorant about your condition. Taking control of one’s life includes a combination of understanding where you are now and taking steps to get to where you’d like to be in the future.
- Try not to dwell on it. Learn from it, observe what may have triggered it, what the signs were leading up, what you had been doing a day or week ago that may have contributed, and move on. I’ve been successful in preventing many panic attacks simply because I’ve observed what the signs were leading up to one and have taken proactive measures to calm down.
- Seek professional help. You may not be able to conquer this on your own. The courage to seek help is a fundamental element of being a mature and responsible human being and you’ll be much better off in the long-run.
A lot of what life consists of is facing and overcoming obstacles. That’s not a sexy reality, but it is what it is. In my case, this was another obstacle in the game of life that I’ve had to learn about and conquer in order to reach the next level of happiness and fulfillment.
My story is unique, and what’s worked for me so far may or may not work for you. Whether you deal with panic attacks, depression, or even something completely unrelated, I encourage you to start thinking of it as an obstacle rather than a set way of life. Be proactive to find a solution rather than just dwelling on the problem. It’s not easy, there will be setbacks, but you’ll learn so much about yourself in the process and set the stage for an amazing future. Best of luck my friends.