My experience with panic attacks, working with the process & how to turn problems into purpose.
The wonderful world of panic. We all get panicky at times but there’s a big difference between panic attacks and having a moment or a blip in the road.
My experience with panic attacks
I remember the first time I had a proper panic attack and it goes all the way back to when I was 8. I was in primary school and it was just another regular day in the classroom.
I was already known to most students and teachers by the nickname ‘Spider’ due to my handwriting and the fact I struggled to learn at the same pace as my peers (throughout my whole school journey, I was working at a level a year behind what I should of been).
It was just like any other day though. I’d stay quiet, get the work done, try my hardest to keep up with the class… so that’s what I did.
But this day was different and I found myself unable to ignore the words and jokes both students and staff were making about me.
I started to get an overwhelming sense of panic as my breathing became less synchronised. I found myself unable to focus on the work I had to do and felt very confused and disorientated.
Now as an 8 year old and this happens, you feel like its fatal. It felt like the worst thing in the world that could ever happen to me.
Although I really wanted to reach out and tell somebody about what I had just experienced, I didn’t tell anyone and nobody noticed I was having a panic attack because I thought that if “I make a fuss, it’ll come back and ill have another one.“
The problem with panic attacks
The thing about panic attacks is, that for the most part they can happen anywhere, and at anytime. This can make it quite difficult to spot and acknowledge that you are actually having a panic attack.
From what I’ve researched and a lot of people who I talk to say that the stigma around panic attacks is why they don’t talk about them and hide them. (I guess this is one of the reasons why I’m being so open right now: it’s something quite difficult for me to talk about my struggles, but in doing so, I can (hopefully) let others know that they aren’t alone).
If you have a panic attack or suffer with panic attacks sometimes it can be regarded and stereotyped as attention seeking behaviour, like you just want to make a scene. In reality, this isn’t the case and actually those who do have panic attacks just want them to stop as quickly as possible.
It’s a sad reality that there still isn’t enough being done to reduce stigma and smash stereotypes. I believe a large part of why there’s so much stigma around panic attacks is because we just don’t know enough about them.
We have come far though, but we still have a long way to go. If people don’t feel they are able to speak up share their experiences; it becomes difficult to understand, support and provide the appropriate care to support those struggling.
We need to all take an active role in removing barriers and opening up discussions surrounding mental health and panic attacks, whether that be lending a listening ear or being able to turn to a friend and say…
“I don’t understand how it feels, but I’d like to learn more so I can know how to support you better”.
A big factor in why panic attacks are not talked about enough is that they aren’t always easy to spot. You can look fine on the outside but inside you may be having a full blown panic attack. It’s not always clearly visible to spot and recognise.
Symptoms can range from shaking, to heavy breathing, to crying, to rocking and stimming (of which swimming is also linked to OCD, autism spectrum and anxiety disorders), to being withdrawn and non-responsive to the environment you’re in. They can be outwardly extreme and almost seizure like, or be more internally with hallucination type behaviours or blurred vision.
Working with the process, not against it
Sometimes however, panic can be a good thing- as long as it doesn’t play a significant role in your health. A little bit of panic is natural, like that bit of anxiety when you have to speak to a large audience, or when you are on an aeroplane waiting for take off.
This kind of panic is what I like to call the positive adrenaline panic and in small doses its good as it get the blood pumping and get your adrenaline rush going.
I think we are very quick to dismiss adrenaline based panic as something that doesn’t ’t exist, but I really think it does. It can be really beneficial at times because I believe in certain situations, panic can help us find purpose.
Just after I was discharged from a 6 month stay in a psychiatric hospital back in 2014, my panic attacks began to get worse because I was back out in the real world where I was faced with daily life and had to learn to recondition myself back into a normal, not so routine environment.
I found that the panic attacks were so frequent I even thought about making a tally chart to keep track of them as I’d loose count on how many I’d had.
Over time I developed a personal strategy to manage the panic attacks, both adrenaline-rush panics and severe anxiety panic attacks. I decided to apply my own mantra to allow me to manage my panic attacks more easily…
“I will let myself have the panic attack when I feel them coming along”.
Breaking them down into smaller chunks has really helped me deal with panic attacks.
But I’ve come to recognise and accept that for me, they never go away completely. I can’t really remember the last time I had a day when I didn’t have some kind of panic attack or adrenaline rush moment. But they are getting less frequent. Having 2 or 3 small ones a day instead of one big panic attack can help to relieve the stress and allow me to stagger through my day and face life in the best way I can.
Another way I use to manage my panic attacks is Grounding.
Grounding yourself within your surroundings to bring yourself back to the present
I find grounding useful and it is something you can do whenever or wherever you are. It’s all about recognising where you are at, how you are feeling and realising that these feelings are temporary.
I think that panic attacks are something that we all deal with in our own different ways. But, over time we learn techniques to help ourselves become the best that we possibly can be.
“Panic causes tunnel vision. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to more easily assess the situation and see the options” – Simon Sinek
For me personally, sometimes my purpose comes from that assessment; finding the best way through situations to have the most positive experiences in life that I can possibly have.
My purpose also comes from all the times in the past the panic has taken over, and I’ve realised that sometimes a little bit of panic is okay, but in proportion.
The power of panic attacks can move us in many ways, but it’s what we do in those panic moments that defines who we are and what we do to help ourselves thrive that makes the difference.
Panic into purpose, no problem.