Make All Your Loved Ones Read This If You’ve Ever Had A Panic Attack

November 13, 2017

We may not be able to tell you what we need. But we don’t want you to leave.

It starts gradually.

Your chest slowly begins to constrict, until you realize you’re no longer able to take a full breath…

You tug at your scarf, or your jacket, or your clothing, trying to loosen anything that might be the culprit, but it doesn’t help…

Now your ears are ringing, and your throat starts to close up. Spots dance in front of your eyes and you’re light-headed, as if you’d stood up too fast, only you haven’t stood up or sat down at all.

Tears flood your eyes and you begin to rock back and forth, panting, desperate for air. Someone asks what’s wrong, but you can’t answer, because you’re struggling to breathe. You know you look like a crazy person, but you can’t help it. A friend puts an arm around you, and you push them away. You don’t want them to leave – you need them to stay, you don’t want to be left alone – but you don’t want to be touched. You need space so you can try to breathe. Breathing takes all your focus.

Anyone who’d ever had a panic attack has probably experienced something remarkably similar to the above; it’s what my panic attacks feel like, but a panic attack can take many forms. A pounding heart, a dry mouth, shortness of breath, tingling in the hands and feet, numbness in certain parts of the body, blind spots, dizziness – those are just some of the most common symptoms. You’ve probably heard people say that they thought they were dying the first time they had a panic attack; you might have thought they were exaggerating.

Let me assure you, they weren’t.

Panic attacks don’t always feel like panic attacks

Not being able to breathe is terrifying. It feels like you’re drowning; it makes you panic even more – except you may not have even known you were panicking in the first place.

The first time I went to the doctor with a panic attack, I sat in the exam room and panted like I’d run up 10 flights of stairs, unable to speak to explain what was wrong. When my breathing finally slowed down, I cried with relief – big snotty tears – and still couldn’t manage to speak. When the sobs subsided, I finally explained that my hands and feet were numb and tingling, and I couldn’t breathe, and something must be very wrong with me. He asked me if I was under any stress, and I told him no, that everything was fine.

Of course, I’d recently had to give up my apartment, and I was sleeping on my ex-husband’s fold-out sofa, and also, I was in an abusive relationship that made me fear for my life. But I was really handling all of that just fine, I assured my doctor. He frowned at me and shook his head, then explained that sometimes stress can bypass the brain and head straight into the rest of your body, shooting pins and needles through your limbs, making your ears buzz, and wrapping a vise around your chest.

The point is, a person having a panic attack isn’t necessarily aware that they’re having anxiety about anything. They may feel like they’re perfectly fine, going about their day, handling their business like a rock star, when boom, they’re knocked back on their heels, wondering if this is how it’s all going to end.

What to do when someone is having a panic attack

Since we’re usually unable to explain to people what we need in the moment, I’m going to explain it here, so you’ll know next time it happens.

First of all, please don’t freak out. We’re already freaking out enough for both of us. Remain calm. Don’t ask us too many questions, and don’t put your arms around us. Sometimes a hand on our back, or our arm, can be comforting; you can ask if we’d like you to put your hand on our arm – usually we can nod yes, or shake our heads no. Please don’t be offended if we don’t want to be touched. We love you; we’re just trying so hard to keep it together.

Get us a glass of water, – a natural remedy for anxiety that usually helps – but tell us what you’re doing first, and don’t go too far. Maybe ask us first if it’s okay to step away for a minute, and wait until we give you the nod. We might have medication we take for panic attacks; you can ask us if we’d like you to get it for us. Yes or no questions are good. We can usually point at things, even if we can’t speak.

Talk to us. Tell us you’re not going to leave. Tell us we’re okay, but don’t talk down to us. Don’t act like we’re being dramatic – don’t sigh, or roll your eyes, or make a joke (unless you know us well enough to be absolutely certain that a little humor will be welcome, to lighten the moment).

Most important, just be there for us. Let us know you’re not going anywhere, and we’re okay, and you love us. Having a panic attack is embarrassing, and scary, and exhausting. We hate it. But we love you – and we need you.

Thanks for reading. And thanks for being there.

Images via tumblr.com and pexels.com.

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