Trigger warning: this post may be distressing for those who suffer from panic attacks, panic disorder or other related anxiety disorders.
Mental Health Awareness Week comes at an interesting/difficult time for me as I have just been signed off work for two weeks thanks to the worst panic attack I’ve ever had.
Before I share this experience, I’d just like to highlight that a panic attack is not just being a ‘little bit scared’. It’s not a mild upset or something only melodramatic people have to attract attention. It is an exaggerated version of your body’s normal response to fear and can be so severe that they can cause the sufferer to feel as though they are having a heart attack or are losing complete control of their body. Some people even fear that they are going to die. They can be triggered for different reasons in different people and are not something to joke about or be taken lightly. At the bottom of this post I’ve provided some helpful tips that I have discovered from my own experiences, both for those supporting someone with a panic attack and those who suffer with them first hand. For more information, please visit the Mind website.
The panic attack I had just a few days ago lasted about an hour and a half, took two days to calm down from and I am still recovering from it now. Which would be scary for anyone, but arguably worse for someone who isn’t used to having them to that severity.
When it started, I was home alone. I’d just got back in from a really fun night out with some friends which resulted in us missing the last train home from Manchester and having to get a hotel. I’d been in high spirits the whole night. We’d been for Mexican food which was delicious and gone bar hopping in Manchester’s Gay Village. It was one of those silly, spontaneous nights out, with no plan and everyone up for anything and I’d had a really great time.
In the hotel that morning, I woke up in a panic. A mild one, but a panic nonetheless. This sort of thing has been happening to me for a while now, so I knew what to do. I woke up my friend, she calmed me down, we got our things together and headed for the train. When mild panic strikes, all I need is to take my mind off things. And I was (seemingly) fine, all the way home. We chatted for the hour long journey and I was distracted.
As the train pulled into the station, I knew I still wasn’t OK. Something was different. The distraction hadn’t worked like it had done in the past. We were drawing out money for the taxi when I said, ‘As soon as you leave, it’s going to start again. I can feel it’, to which Grace responded, ‘If it does, you call me. I’m free all day’. We hugged, I jumped in the taxi, and tried to keep my head together.
‘Everything is fine’, I kept repeating to myself. It was a beautiful Friday morning. It was 10am, the sun was already shining and the heat was a glorious contrast to our usual forecast of rain, rain and more rain. I had three hours to get home, shower, eat and then head out to work which would mean a walk in said wonderful sunshine. Everything was going to plan and physically, except for a little sleep deprivation, I was feeling fine.
My mind, on the other hand, was slowly unravelling. The 10 minute taxi journey felt like a life time. I just about managed to pay for the ride and jump out of the taxi without bursting into tears. I struggled with the door key, ran upstairs and sat on the floor next to my bed, sobbing. ‘It’s OK, it’s OK, you’re going to be OK’, I whispered in an attempt to soothe myself, despite having no idea what was going on.
Whenever my head feels like it’s out of control, I have no choice but to rely on other people to keep me together. It’s the connection to the reality that I am no longer feeling, a soothing voice full of love that wriggles it’s way through the pain and gently coaxes my thoughts back to sobriety. I have a mental list of the people I can call in such times, because I find it difficult to put everything on one person for fear of feeling like a burden. For this reason, despite her earlier encouragements to do so, I couldn’t call Grace because in my panicked state, I believed she’d already done too much for me that morning.
I tried a couple of people before eventually getting put in contact with Will, who had missed my previous calls, via a good friend who lives in Oxford. By this point, I was hyperventilating to the point where I couldn’t feel my face, my legs we shaking uncontrollably and I genuinely thought I was going mad. There are very few times throughout my experiences with mental illness when I’ve thought I might actually be losing my mind, and this one topped the charts.
Luckily, Will always seems to know the right thing to say in these situations and his voice makes me feel safe and loved. By the time he got through, I’d been panicking for about 40 minutes, and it took about the same time for me to find calm again. Along with the supportive words of friends like Grace over text, he rode out the storm with me, talking me through things like calling work to explain what was going on and helpful breathing exercises. I was so scared about what was happening to me, but it was a thousand times less scary knowing that I wasn’t going through it alone.
Once I’d eventually calmed down, I was exhausted. Despite bits of sleep and food over the next few days, I remained hyper-aware and on edge until Sunday afternoon when things finally started mellow out. That’s 48 hours of feeling like adrenaline is coursing through your veins and like another attack could happen at any moment. I don’t know how I would have got through it without the amazing support of my family, friends and work colleagues.
At the time, I had no idea why the panic started, though I have a slightly better picture now. It was hardly out of the blue. There have been warning signs for weeks which hindsight makes perfectly obvious. The problem is, when you don’t know what to look out for, ‘obvious’ warning signs aren’t obvious at all. Another reason why the conversation around mental health needs to continue to become more open and honest, to prevent situations like mine from getting worse than they really need to be.
Will won’t mind me saying that he is no expert in mental health. Neither is Grace, nor my mum, nor any of my other friends who continually support me. Neither am I. The truth is, we, as a society, know so little about the workings/reasons/causes for mental health problems, that even the experts are still pretty far off the mark. What we do know is that relationships are SO important for getting us through the difficult times. We may all be guessing about the right things to say and do, but at least we’re guessing together. I’ve found the more people I have been honest with about my illnesses, the easier it has become to cope with, as there are so many people around me to support me. Don’t be afraid to speak out. There are people who understand. Let us not be silent.
Tips for helping someone through a panic attack*:
- Stay calm. I can promise you that they are a million more times scared than you are.
- Ask, ‘What can I do to help you?’. This is SO important because everyone’s experiences mental health issues in different ways so there is no set step-by-step guide. What helps me might be the total opposite to what helps somebody else.
- Do not leave them alone. If you can’t be there physically (which is of course preferable) call them and stay on the phone as long as they need you to. Facing panic alone only makes things worse.
- Keep talking. Whether you’re reminding them over and over that it’s going to be OK or talking about what happened on Corrie last night, I’ve found another person’s voice cutting through my own out of control thoughts can be soothing. Or if the talking is too much for someone, a gentle ‘shhhhh’ can sometimes do the trick. Either way, they’ll tell you if something isn’t helping.
- Use helpful phrases like ‘It’s OK, I’m here’, ‘You’re going to be alright’ and ‘We’ll get you through this’. The right words are more important that you could know. NEVER tell someone to ‘calm down’ or ‘try harder’, I promise that will only make things worse.
*Everything I write here I have learned from my own experiences, so not everyone will be the same. The most important thing to do is ask the person you are helping. There are also helpful websites such as Mind (a personal favourite of mine) and loads of others that are just a google search away.
Tips for coping with your own panic attack:
- Get help. As soon as possible. Someone you trust, who can be there with you is the best. If not, call someone. If you don’t have someone you feel you can trust, there are so many numbers you can call like The Samaritans or No Panic, where you’ll be put in contact with someone who is trained to deal with situations like this.
- Concentrate on your breathing. The stronger the panic, the more strange sensations you’re going to get in your body. If your mouth, face, hands or legs start going numb, it’s a normal reaction. For me, the uncontrollable shaking was the most terrifying because I thought I was having a fit. I wasn’t, and it turns out shaking is another symptom. Focus on breathing and if you can, update whoever you are with as the sensations intensify.
- Find something external to focus on. I had a packet of Twiglets, of all things. It was hard to eat, but the effort and focus I had to put into it took me out of my own head enough to help me calm down. I’ve also read that cold glass of water or ice cube can work wonders.
Once again, these are just things that I have found helpful. There is more information on Mind’s Self Care for Anxiety page.