Mental Health Month: Explaining a Panic Attack

Ever wondered what it’s like? (Social) anxiety, panic attacks, hyperventilating? And what triggers it? First, a little personal story I’d like to share with you. 

 

I survived!

I recently celebrated 200 days without having a single panic attack. It made me realize, I was finally strong enough to explain to people what I’d experienced over the last few years. It’s really helpful to know that the people around you are supportive, so when they asked what it’s like to have anxiety, I felt really bad for not being ready to explain. So, here it goes.

It started four years ago, I was with my best friend at the movies and having a blast. Everything seemed normal. Until the last five minutes of the movie (I completely missed the clue), suddenly everything felt differently. The room seemed to become darker and darker, walls were closing in on me, the air got too heavy to breathe and I felt my heart racing. Then, my hands became sweaty, I started shaking a little bit. And then it got worse, I started seeing black spots, it felt like I was dying or fainting. I got up as fast I could and ran to the nearest restrooms where I locked myself in a stall and collapsed on the floor.

Nothing really serious happened, though. I didn’t pass out or die, obviously. But it had certainly freaked the cr*p out of me! What was going on?? After the movies, my friend and I walked across the city to grab a few drinks at a bar. I decided not to drink, fearing alcohol might make things worse. But even after I had a sip of my tea, I still felt weird. Ten minutes later I was in the restrooms again, gasping for air while asking myself; ‘What the F is going on??!’

Like with so many other conditions, nobody seemed to take me seriously. Apart from my friends. Doctors told me it was stress, so I must be hyperventilating. ‘Just bring a plastic bag with you, everywhere you go’ was their advice. How fashionable. Or ‘just stay where you are, it will go away eventually!’ Really, really glad I didn’t take that advice! Because sometimes, it won’t go away, and you’ll find yourself passed out in the middle of a freaking plane with strangers looking at you like you’re a freak, which will make you pass out again. Yeah, that actually happened.

I’ve had panic attacks for four years, sometimes multiple attacks a day, sometimes once a week. But even once a week is way too often.

 

The build up of a panic attack

You never know when you’re going to have a panic attack. It just comes to you. At the mall, in the middle of a movie, at the checkout while doing groceries. At some point I started having attacks in my own home, when I was completely alone. That’s wat makes it so scary and hard to deal with.

I don’t think every person experiences a panic attack the same way, so here’s my experience with it.

At first, I thought I was only vulnerable at days when I felt like sh*t. When I didn’t get enough sleep, or was stressed out, ate something wrong. Until one day, of course. I felt perfectly fine, finished my work for the day and then drove off to get groceries.
Driving my car always seemed to help, so I was never worried about having an attack in the car. Doing groceries isn’t one of my favorite things to do, to be honest I absolutely hate it. So there I was, shopping cart filled to the max and waiting in line together with a few dozen people. There were only about three of four people in front of me when I suddenly felt weird again.

It’s like a hunch, a gut feeling that something was wrong and I had to get out of there. Stubborn as I was back then (never listening to my body), I stayed. And I seriously regret it. My sight became blurry, the line in front of me wouldn’t stop moving, voices and sounds started to overlay, I had a ringing in my ears and then it was like I was deaf. The only thing I could hear was my heart pumping through my chest. This all happened within one minute, maybe one-and-a-half. I grabbed my cart even tighter, hoping that holding on to something would help. After about five seconds I realized, it didn’t. So I left my cart in line and ran out the store, across the parking lot while searching for my car and finding those damn keys to open the doors. I got in, slammed the door behind me and just sighed of relief. I made it, I was safe!! But still, no groceries.

You can’t imagine the days where I had nothing normal to eat, due to my fear of having another panic attack at the store. I often waited until I had a chance to go with a friend, or my parents. It seemed to help. But, like with everything really, you need to fix the problem, the source. Fighting the symptoms won’t get you anywhere, trust me.

Nobody said it would be easy! But it will be worth it.

 

How to stop a panic attack?

This is different for every individual too. You will, or already have, come through lots of helpful tips and guidance about handeling a panic attack. I’ve tried them all:
– Breathing exercises
– EMDR
– Keeping myself busy by talking, calling someone or just pacing around the store
– Watching video’s on my phone
– Repeating my mantra in my head for about 1000 times
– Drink water (sometimes bubbly)
– Have a snack
– Give in and go home.

I’m very sorry to tell you this, but nothing worked (for me). My anxiety came from a deeper place, it was part of my PTSD and buried away but still easy to find for my subconscious mind. I had to travel back in time, to the first event in my life that helped build up such trauma that it triggered panic attacks.

Why I had these panic attacks? My body was no longer connected with my mind, my soul, my spirit or whatever you want to call it. So every time my body picked up on some kind of possible threat, my mind escaped my body so that my anxiety could run wild and free. No wonder I couldn’t stop them with breathing exercises or whatever, I just wasn’t able to respond to that.

After weeks of digging into my past, exploring every possible cause for my anxiety, I came up with a personal plan. I adjusted my daily routine; doing more yoga and meditation, eating healthy, kicking negative people out of my life, exercise regularly and of course, I had my therapist. So I talked and talked, did a little meditation exercise, some yoga, talked to my therapist a bit more, walked the dogs, go horseback riding or made music on my piano. I had to connect with myself again.

After about two months I already felt different. More relaxed, OK with my own company ànd I could enjoy things like being outside or walking the dogs again. Battling my depression and all the therapy and work that comes with it, also helped a lot. I needed to find a way to feel happy in my own body again. And I found a way that worked for me.

I hope you’ll have the strength and courage to take this journey and grab your anxiety by it’s *ss! I know you can do it, you just need to have a little Faith ❤

 

-Love, Zoë

 

“Life should not only be lived, it should be celebrated.”

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