Recently I was asked what it felt like to have a panic attack. I wasn't totally sure how to respond. But I thought about it, and I looked at other things I've written on the matter, and I think I'm ready to respond...
It starts out with a trigger. Always.
Sometimes the trigger is a mystery. But usually you can trace an attack back to a specific moment; maybe something startled you, or maybe you were in a too-tight space. or maybe you thought about something traumatic...but suddenly it's happening and you're just along for the ride.
It's like a platform drops out from underneath you.
Maybe your palms start to sweat and you curl your hands into fists to keep anyone from noticing that your fingers have begun to tremble.
Your stomach curls in on itself and you start to feel sick. Sometimes you feel dizzy, go weak in the knees, can't see straight.
Your head begins to race. Holding onto a thought starts to feel like trying to catch water with a fork. You can't focus your worry, so it flies off into all directions, encompassing anything from immediate dangers, to the seemingly inevitable apocalypse of the universe. Your mind spins, sending these troublesome thoughts into a loop that seems impossible to break. Every noise, sudden movement, and sensation sets your nerves on high alert. Your skin feels like fire.
And you forget how to breathe.
That most simple of instincts disappears.
You have to coach yourself through every inhale. Every exhale.
Your lungs won't hold enough air; they try to cough it back up, regarding oxygen as a foreign substance.
Often, there is a part of your brain screaming instructions. Breathe, move, calm down - and it only makes you more upset.
Because you can't.
You don't know how to catch your breath again. You don't know how to stop your mind from spinning.You don't know how to get it together. You know you're being irrational. But you're terrified of some foreign threat.
Every limb is shaking.
Crying doesn't help, but that doesn't stop it from happening.
You can't do it can't do it can not do it can'tdoit cannotdoitcan't.
You wonder if you're going crazy. You feel like you're trapped, like nowhere is safe. Everything is spinning and too loud.
It's like drowning in a bathtub and not remembering how to stand up.
It's like being punched in the stomach and having the wind knocked out of you.
If you're lucky, it only lasts a few minutes, but the strain of pulling yourself through an attack can leave you feeling drained for hours afterwards.
I know how to deal with my panic attacks, more or less, but it still takes me a lot of time to come out of one once it's begun. So, to those who know me (and those who don't,) if I look like I can't breathe, or I can't stop crying (or laughing for that matter) hold my hand, remind me how to inhale, and give me a moment to catch my breath. Hand me a tissue. Offer me an ice pack to hold on to. Remind me that I've made it through this before and can do it again.
Panic attacks suck.
Fortunately, I know how to survive them.