Because it happens out of nowhere.
I remember my first panic attack so vividly. Considering it was only six months ago, that might not sound so significant, but the entire feeling has stuck with me since.
It was a regular day, busy, but nothing out of the ordinary. I was walking to the train after class when my boyfriend called asking me to pick up something for dinner. Like a lot of couples, we wasted a five minute phone call debating what we would eat.
Shortly after hanging up, my heart started pounding. I began gasping for breath – every noise on the street suddenly ringing out in my ears. Sweat began pouring from every pore like a running faucet.
The tunnel I had nonchalantly walked through every day to the subway now appeared daunting. Terrifying, even.
I slammed my back against a brick wall and tried to slow myself down. Time became slowed, while my heart raced frantically.
I have no idea how long I stood there for.
Eventually, I peeled myself from the wall, stumbled to the store and blankly shot my order to the clerk.
I ordered for my boyfriend only, the very thought of food prompting my already nauseated stomach to churn.
The whole experience was sickening and confusing, to say the least, but the worst part was that I honestly had no idea what had just happened to me.
Returning home and filling my boyfriend – who was already worried as to why I hadn’t been replying to his texts – in on the entire strange ordeal left me with no more clarity. We were both stumped. Maybe it was just a weird once-off?
I turned to Doctor Google and typed in my symptoms – shortness of breath, heart racing, sweating, and dizziness. Two diagnoses appeared.
A heart attack and a panic attack.
Considering I was still functioning and slowly settling down, I diagnosed myself with the latter.
As someone who has never had issues with my mental health, I knew very little about anxiety, and panic attacks in particular. To be frank, I always thought they weren’t a real thing or just an over-exaggeration of someone feeling a little freaked out.
Thinking back on that day though, I’ve realized anxiety can affect anyone. In fact, one in 13 people suffer from it globally, making anxiety the most common mental health disorder in the world. Unfortunately for me, in school, mental health education was not a priority, and basically non-existent. The skills we need to cope in today’s society should be a priority in schools, because they could have helped me in a time when I literally thought I was dying, and they could help the millions of others suffering out there in the world.
So here’s what I wish I knew before my first panic attack, and what everyone else should too, whether you’re a sufferer or not.
1. It’s likely to happen when you least expect it
Since my first panic attack, I’ve had multiple more. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s rarely any warning when a panic attack or bout of bad anxiety is coming on. Because there is no warning, everyone should be prepared.
I personally like to use the free ReachOut Breathe app, which simply helps you control your breathing and slow it down during a period of stress or anxiety. It can also measure your heart rate, as this tends to skyrocket with a panic attack. Since my phone is almost always by my side, having a simple app that helps calm me down is my safety blanket (and could have been really useful during that first time).
For me, anxiety tends to strike at the worst possible times, so it’s best to be prepared. A panic attack on the morning peak hour train is not fun, but being aware it could happen at any time has helped me through it.
2. It mimics the symptoms of a heart attack
The symptoms of panic attacks and heart attacks are frighteningly similar. Common symptoms can include shortness of breath, chest pain, racing heart, palpitations, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, body pain, hot and cold flushes, fatigue, profuse sweating and stomach discomfort.
Both panic attacks and heart attacks occur suddenly without warning, causing a lot of first-time sufferers to rush to the emergency department.
The most important thing to remember is that calming down can significantly reduce symptoms of a panic attack. If you really are having a heart attack, simply calming down won’t do very much in alleviating symptoms so you’ll be sure to tell the difference.
3. It only gets worse when you panic more
When you suddenly feel on the brink of death, you’re shit scared. You panic. Obviously, this is the worst thing to do, because you’re simply fuelling your panic attack.
During my first episode, I spent at least 10 minutes working myself up because of how petrified I was. Now that I know what’s happening to my body when a panic attack comes on, I’m able to instantly do everything I can to calm myself down, and it’s a lot easier knowing it isn’t a sign of anything more serious.
However, your panic attack symptoms can change over time. One time your chest may be in agony, and another time you might shake with cold sweats. If calming yourself down doesn’t ease the symptoms, you should definitely seek help at the emergency department. Because as I’ve learned as I’ve become more accustomed to suffering panic attacks, mental health issues aren’t something that should be ignored, ever. I only wish I’d known that before that frightening day on the street.
Images via tumblr, giphy.com.
Comment: What was your first panic attack like?