Jeff Duke, MSW, RSW
Today I would like to take you on an experiential journey. By reading this posting I would like to give you an idea of what a panic attack might feel like for someone who experiences one. For those of you who have been through this yourselves you might prefer not to read this posting. I want to ensure you my purpose here is to increase awareness and understanding, as well as decrease stigma. I want people to have a healthy respect for what this can be like for you when you experience panic. For those of you who are curious and want to learn follow me.
I want you to think of a time when you felt a moderate degree of stress because of something distressing that happened. Another possibility would be to think of a possible stressful situation that you are anticipating or have anticipated in the past. If you need some examples: your new born first child seems to be developing some strange symptoms after falling ill. You have two reports due on the boss’s desk today, which you are behind on, and the boss has recently criticized your performance. Tax season is about to be upon us. Cramming for final exams. Take some time to remember what this experience was like for you. How does anticipating a possible stressful event feel? How did you feel while going through it or anticipating it? Once you have the experience firmly in mind continue reading.
So I’m guessing you’re feeling some muscle tension, or stomach butterflies? Maybe your heart is beating a little faster or your breathing feels a little laboured? Not at all pleasant is it. You might be having thoughts that leave you feeling overburdened or being unable to take action to solve the problem. To understand what panic is I want you to imagine the power and momentum behind those symptoms and thoughts being magnified by a factor of ten.
When a person panics often suddenly their heart beats so hard and so fast it feels like it will beat out of their chest. Their breathing can become so heavy and laboured that it feels like they cannot draw air in to their lungs. Their stomachs can become so active it feels like they could vomit. Adrenalin courses through their bodies often making their arms and legs feel like they are going numb. Some people begin to develop an almost unreal sensation of almost floating slightly above their bodies, as if they would float away but for being somehow tethered to the floor. They may feel pins and needles sensations coursing through their bodies at the rate of an out of control locomotive. In fact Out of Control is one of the dominant over all experiences of panic, along with the sense of being in extreme danger.
When these sensations hit the person experiencing them often has thoughts like, “I’m dying!” “I’m having a heart attack!” “I’m gonna pass out!” “I’m going crazy!” “Why is this happening to me?” The sensations often last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes before they start to dissipate; and during that time it is agony. During this time the symptoms build and build and build becoming more intense and the terrified thoughts rush in and pile on further amplifying the symptoms. If a person is having the attack with other people around fears of people finding out what is going on inside of them will start up. “Why is this only happening to me?” “I must be going crazy!” “I’m losing my mind in front of these people!” “Please don’t let them find out, Please Please Please!”
Eventually the symptoms start to pass and the person calms down. They realize they are okay and did survive. They will likely feel rather tired and relieved, but also confused and worried. They may feel ashamed or foolish. What was that they just went through. It felt like they were dying, but here they are still alive. They must be going crazy because what they went through is definitely not normal. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical. Well here they are now and the main thing is to make sure it never happens again and that way everything will be okay. But, unfortunately for many people sometime after the first panic attack it could be hours, days, weeks, or months later it happens again. Often when it does happen again this confirms for the person that they are, “losing it!”
Because they fear they are losing their minds and worry about what other people will think of them, they do not seek help or reach out to people who are close to them. They suffer in silence. For those who do reach out to the people around them the response is often not supportive. “You need to get a grip.” “Buck up.” “Be an man.” “Don’t be overly dramatic.” “Oh you’re such a drama queen.” “You need to relax. “You need a night out.” “Are you crazy or something?” “Just think positive thoughts and you’ll be fine.” Let me be very clear, the likelihood of being able to be positive or have positive thoughts in the middle of a panic attack is less likely than finding water in the middle of a desert. If you went through the symptoms I described, were terrified of them, were scared you were going to die because of them, were afraid of how people would react if they found out, and then built of the courage to reach out anyway and got responses like these, what do you think it would do to you? This is why the stigma around mental health has to end.
For some people panic can happen due having to a phobia like being around spiders, leaving their homes, or crossing bridges. For others this might happen if they are in a situation that is reminds them of a time they were endangered (i.e. being in the car several days after being in a car accident). Sometimes, for some people there is no obvious cause, it just happens. The reality is that people who experience situations like this are having panic attacks and this is a form of anxiety. It does not mean they are going crazy or losing their minds. Anxiety and panic never causes people to lose touch with reality, what people feel when they experience these conditions is really happening inside them.
While panic attacks and anxiety symptoms do mimic symptoms of heart attacks (and if one is not sure whether they are having a heart attack or not they should report to the ER); anxiety and panic attacks are not deadly. They just feel really terrifying. Anxiety and panic are treatable conditions. With counselling and psychotherapy sometimes along with other forms of treatment people, who experience these conditions can learn to manage their panic symptoms and handle anxiety so they can live productive, fulfilling lives.