Surviving A Panic Attack

Mental health

Very few people know this about me but during a particularly stressful period in my life I was prone to panic attacks. They always happened late at night. Sometimes I would wake up with one. Sometimes I’d be trying to get to sleep and would be stricken. If you’ve never had one, you can’t really imagine the full body dread that comes with an attack.

In my case the first sign would be the feeling of ice cold water being poured over my head. Imagine you’re taking a nice, hot pleasant shower when someone decides to run some hot water in the kitchen. It’s that moment when the cold water hits the top of your head and drains down through your hair and covers your helpless, naked body. You can’t move. You can’t breathe. Your heart skips a beat.

Except during the panic attack, you simply can’t go back to breathing. The water doesn’t warm back up once your housemate shuts the water off again. No, sir.  No breath seems deep enough. As for that skipping heart, it just keeps on racing and no matter what you do you can’t convince yourself you are not about to keel over dead that very second.

Then the pacing starts, the nervous restless leg type movements. I remember one night walking back and forth from the living room to the kitchen over and over and over again. You ARE going to die, of course. It’s just a matter of minutes. Your brain is going to explode from an aneurism or your heart that’s beating so fast right now is just going to stop or you’re going to suffocate. Take a deep breath. Take two. Try three. Pace, pace, pace.  Where minutes ago you were freezing and unable to breath, now you’re sweating and hyperventilating. Should I call 9-1-1? Should I wake someone else in the house?  And these are only the physical symptoms!

Absolute, terrifying dread and feeling like you aren’t even really there anymore. This has got to be a dream. It’s not real. I’m not having a mental breakdown. Am I? I think I am. I’m going to die. I have to get out of here, run, run, run. Escape.  These rooms are so small, I can’t breathe in here. Stop, just stop. Relax. Take a deep breath. Maybe if I went outside. Focus. Stop pacing. Try and make your hands stop shaking.  And so it goes on and on for what seems like hours when it’s really only been ten or fifteen minutes since you first felt that icy wash of fear.

Slowly, oh so agonizingly slowly, the deep breath you take actually feels deep enough. Your heart rate eases. Your head stops swimming. The panic is subsiding. Maybe you aren’t going to bite the big one tonight. You stop pacing and sweating and shuddering and rocking. The shower warms up again and you can relax. Yawn. Go back to bed. Sleep. Unfortunately, once you’ve been subjected to one of these lovely episodes, somewhere in your brain you always fear another one coming.

I’m happy to say I’ve been panic attack free for at least three years now, probably closer to five.  After the first one when I was clueless as to what was really going on, I was able to rein the whole thing in by using meditation techniques I’d learned years before. It didn’t make the onsets any easier or less sudden but it did help to make the episodes less intense and of a shorter duration. Deep breathing exercises and finding an inner focus did wonders.  Instead of an hour of panic, it would only last fifteen minutes. If I was already awake when it started, chances were good I could squash the whole thing before the cold water shower even made it past my waist. And, thankfully, the stress in my life is running a lot let violently and deeply. That, more than any of my coping mechanisms, is what I believe has removed the panic attacks into a distant, horrible memory instead of a constant waking fear of when the next one will strike.

My Favorite Techniques:

Rip It To Shreds: Keep some scraps of cheap, thin fabric nearby, like cotton hankies, an old pillow case or bed sheet cut down to 2 foot X 2 foot squares, handy. With scissors, snip like cuts into the edges to get the fabric ready and easy to tear. Paper works too and would do in a pinch, but for me was not as effective. The long, pulling sound of a fabric took my hands and arms away from their urge to shake while still letting my muscles flex and release like they wanted to. The difference being, YOU are in control of it, not your panic-stricken body.

5-7-8 Breathing:  This was/is my first step at getting back in control. Breath in (I know – at first it won’t feel like you can, but do the best you can in the moment) as deep as you can for a count of five. Hold the breath for the seven count. Exhale completely to the count of eight. This will help to slow your rapid heartbeat and get more oxygen to your panic-stricken brain.

Focus and Visualize:  Even if you’re pacing a rut in the floor, try and visualize not where you are but where you’d like most to be. Maybe it’s a place. Maybe it’s in the arms of someone you love. Whatever it is, go there in your mind. Picture it as detailed as you can and breathe, 5-7-8. 5-7-8.

I don’t know why I’ve chosen now to share this with the world. Maybe there is someone out there who needs to hear these words from me, someone whose life if stuffed to the gills with doubt, fears, hopelessness and self-hate. Maybe you are the sort of person that stresses more than average over the encroaching holidays. Whatever the reason remember, you will get through it! Don’t Panic! (LOL).  Don’t be ashamed to see a doctor. The symptoms of a panic attack are VERY much like a heart attack. Better to be safe than sorry.

Gelotophobia – Fear of being laughed at or ridiculed.

Mental health / Phobias

He’s bigger than you! He’s meaner than you! He’s about to take your lunch money! For the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about bullies. If only they were limited to the sort of person noted above. If only they were only in high school. If only we could all put our finger on exactly what a bully is.

Sadly, they come in all shapes and sizes and aren’t limited to the male of our species. From my experience the female variety are even worse! Male bullies usually just want to beat the snot out of you and take your valuables. Females don’t have to lay a hand on you to do damage. The females I’ve encountered, directly or indirectly, tend to go for the sneak attack. They scheme a lot more and the damage a female bully does leans more towards the mental/psychological than the physical. They may not be strong enough to kick sand in your face but they’ll still leave you feeling battered, bruised and helpless. I’ll never really understand why bullies do what they do. It makes them feel special and in-control and all that, but I can feel special and in control without stamping all over the feelings of another person. I’m sure there’s a galaxy of articles, books, speeches, classes, studies et al out there about these people. I’m not here to rehash any of those.

I’d like to say I completely lucked out in life and was never bullied by anyone but I can’t. In fact, a few years ago I was able to escape such a relationship. Sometimes finding out your partner is cheating on you is a good thing. It was the little push I need to get rid of his arse once and for all. I know my abuse wasn’t as bad as what some of my friends have had to endure. I like to tell the story of a friend of mine from high school and how I stopped him from getting pounded without lifting a finger.

We must have been sophomores. My friend, let’s call him Fred, through no fault of his own beyond being very smart, polite and sticking to his religious convictions of turning the other cheek, found himself cornered on a stairway during lunch. Unfortunately the school bully, we’ll call him Abner, shared the same lunch period. There was the usual ruckus through the masses, the whispering grapevine, through which I got wind of what was going on. With a hard, hot knot in my stomach, I pulled myself away from whatever book of witchery I may have been reading at the time and went to see what was going on. It wasn’t out of morbid curiosity. This was MY FRIEND and well, there wasn’t much to me back then but I’d be damned if I was going to let Fred get pounded. I’d beat the crap out of Abner myself if I had to. I’m not a violent person by nature, mind you, so punching Abner in the face would certainly be a last resort – though I can’t say I’d have minded doing it.

Upon my arrival to the scene, Abner was standing over Fred who was sitting on the steps. Abner was going through his Bully Posturing and Tough Talk. Abner was demanding Fred take the first swing, don’t be a chicken, you sissy, the usual shpeel. Fred wouldn’t do it cuz we all know, the one who throws the first punch is the one who started it, right? I knew Fred would never take the first swing and slowly nudged my way through the gathering peanut gallery until I was sure both Fred and Abner could see me. I casually crossed my arms and leaned against the nearby pillar and watched Abner. Maybe watch isn’t quite the right word.. more like, ‘evil-eyed’ the bad boy. If looks could kill, sorta thing. It was an unblinking, cold stare. After a few minutes Abner looked towards the crowd and saw me. I gave him an equally icy smile and shook my head ever so slightly back and forth.

Abner stood motionless and silent for a moment then looked at Fred and said, “She’s one of your friends, isn’t she?” Fred saw me and nodded. Abner looked at me again. I hadn’t moved an inch and my anger was increasing. It must have showed because Fred backed down. “She’s a witch or something. She knows stuff,” he said. Just about this time the school VP showed up and carted the two of them away. Not sure what the final outcome was back at The Office, but I’d like to think I played a role in preventing Fred from being hurt that day or any days that followed. I went back to my table and my book and finished my lunch now officially dubbed a witch. It was a title I’d carry with me for many years with a certain level of pride. Maybe that’s why I was never bullied too much.

But, as stated prior, bullies don’t just go away when you leave high school. I’ve come to think that the worse sort of bullies maybe aren’t though of as bullies at all, and maybe they don’t do what they do with any intention of harm, but what they say still hurts and makes the victim feel less of a person.

A lot of people suffer from phobias. Some are mild and easily overcome. Some are so bad the sufferer can’t leave their own home. I have a few phobias. I also have some deep-seeded insecurities that I am working to overcome. Facing ones fears to overcome a phobia is one thing but to have that fear pushed upon you is or to have that fear or insecurity totally ignored and mocked is completely different. If you’re a real friend to someone who is afraid of heights you AREN’T helping by taking them up in a twenty-story glass elevator. You don’t toss a snake or spider on someone who is deathly afraid of them. And you really shouldn’t mock anyone who has an insecurity about how they look or feel. That’s being a bully just as much as Abner was to Fred. The phobic feels bad enough as it is. You are making them feel worse, like they’re feelings don’t matter to you at all and like there is something more wrong with them than they already believe there to be. That doesn’t sound like a friend to me at all. It’s okay to be light-hearted to try and  make them feel better but don’t tell them what they are feeling is nothing or silly or stupid. It isn’t NOTHING! It’s very real. It’s very painful. An off-handed remark that what they are feeling doesn’t matter strikes just as hard as a punch to the jaw or a slap across the face. It makes you a bully.

I’m not talking about being overly Politically Correct either. In my mind, that’s a whole different ballgame.

Being kind to each other is so much easier than being cruel and it’s so much more rewarding. Words can hurt just as much a those sticks, stones and fists. Think before you speak and treat others as you would expect to be treated. Being respectful, even to total strangers, goes a long way.