I want to give a shout out to everyone who’s ever had a panic attack before. People who have never experienced one personally just don’t understand it. They can read about it and think they’ve gotten the gist of it but there will always be that intense, drowning aspect of it that inevitably escapes those who haven’t had to suffer through it. That being said, I applaud the multitude of counseling professionals who have still managed to impart effective coping skills to us like controlled breathing and thought out plans about what to do when we feeling it coming on. Those of us who have fought to hold on to reality in the midst of terror are in a unique position to offer support and encouragement to one another. I’d like to do my part by offering up the helpful bits of knowledge I wish someone had passed on to me a long time ago.
First of all, panic attacks aren’t signs that you’re crazy. Someone may have told you otherwise but they were likely swept up in the misconceptions society has about mental health and frankly…someone who speaks to you like that is uninterested in treating you with the respect and dignity you deserve. You are also not somehow less of a human being for experiencing panic attacks. They’re an indication that you’re exceptionally overwhelmed by worry/anxiety. I was told by a psychiatrist a few years back that my brain was so used to having them that it would just misfire every now and then and cause one for no discernable reason.
I struggled for years with believing that I had made some sort of mistake when I was overtaken by a panic attack and therefore was responsible for them plaguing me. Even though I definitely needed to learn how to handle anxiety better, it was an oversimplification to say I was directly responsible for each panic attack. Yes, I had more growing up to do but I was also stuck in an impossible position by my parents that led to my overbearing stress and that was not my fault. If only I’d been able to acknowledge that truth sooner and saved myself so many late nights of kicking myself over how stupid I believed myself to be for not knowing what to do or understanding what panic attacks were. Please don’t berate yourself for the fact that they happen to you while still realizing there may be more tools for minimizing them than you’ve encountered.
Arguably, nothing helps more in the midst of a panic attack than being as merciful to yourself as you can be possibly be. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t focus on everything in life that’s upsetting you. Don’t even try to go solving your biggest life problems right then. This is the time to be lenient and understanding toward yourself because you’re overloading. Piling more stressful thoughts on your brain is not going to help. Just recognize that it’s happening and let the realization pass without condemning yourself.
I find it incredibly hard to direct my thoughts to a more positive place than that, so I keep certain items available in my room that remind me in one sensory capacity or another of times where I felt safe—a soft blanket my cousin used to wrap around me when I was shaking uncontrollably, a scent I found soothing and recordings of people’s voices saying encouraging things to me. I even have a small, portable electronic metronome that I set to 40 BPM to help me pace the inhale/exhale routine one of my former therapists taught me when everything in me is racing too quickly to keep track of anything without help.
I know it’s extremely difficult to believe this when you’re actually having one but please remind yourself, even if you have to write it down next to your bed, that you’re not going to die. It WILL pass. Eventually. The best way you can speed up the process is not dwell on something that will add to your upset. Focus every fiber of your concentration on a memory of what it felt like to be safe and imagine yourself in the safest place you can. You will come to that place again; you just have to wait it out and then you’ll be there again.