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.