One of the scariest experiences that often takes you by complete surprise is a panic attack.
Attacks are sometimes categorized under mental illness — which opens a world of commentary about how attacks are viewed by those experience them, and those who witness them. If you experience an attack, you feel like something is wrong with you. If you witness an attack, you’re unsure of how to react.
Shame and avoidance aren’t the answer. Here’s how you can help yourself, and others around you, get through them.
Panic Attacks Are NOT Made Up
There isn’t enough education about panic attacks or knowledge about where they come from, truthfully. It’s brave when someone even acknowledges they are having one. Recently, a woman took before and after pictures to show the reality of what panic attacks look like. She channeled and shared what she felt like in a very vulnerable moment.
Panic attacks are very traumatizing for those who go through the experience, especially when you don’t know if and when the next one will strike. The experience stays with you. That trauma can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women have experienced an event that’s traumatizing. Trauma can stay with you and affect you in ways you won’t always understand.
But know this: You’re not making it up, and there is nothing you should be ashamed of.
You didn’t do anything, and are not doing anything, wrong.
It’s an experience that is happening to your body, and it’s terrifying. Mental and physical illness are linked. Under no circumstance do you need to apologize for this scary experience. Do not take on others’ ignorance as your embarrassment.
Panic attacks are triggered by a number of factors. A repeated instance of a friend not showing up for scheduled coffee date or shopping trip may trigger a panic attack. If an elevator door does not open immediately, it may trigger fear and a panic attack, as the sufferer feels the walls are closing in on them. Such experiences are very real and very frightening.
You are highly sensitive and empathetic.
Even after experiencing panic attacks his or her whole life, how can anyone be prepared when such a scary experience comes from nowhere? Chances are that you are highly sensitive, having experienced such extremes within your mind and body.
Being “too sensitive” is another weakness in society’s eyes, but it’s actually a superpower that comes after experiencing trauma. Even though your sensitivity brings daily struggles, think of the details you notice that others don’t.
Because of your heightened sensitivity, maybe you’ll just happen to be a stranger in the right place at the right time for someone else going through a similar experience. Maybe you have a well-tuned radar for others experiencing trauma and empathy for anyone suffering. If so, you are equipped with experience to relate to them. Actively listen to what that person is going through without judgement. Do not shy away from expressing empathy and sensitivity.
Talking about what you are going through is part of awareness and healing. It also encourages others to speak up and offer you support.
You are doing your best.
Yes, you are doing your best. That’s all anyone can ask of you. Under the weight and unpredictability of experiencing panic attacks, you wake up every morning to start the day. When the panic attack occurs, you are vulnerable and you are afraid. You’re human. Sometimes, you are able to talk yourself through it.
More importantly, you are present with yourself as you go through this experience. Hardly anyone lives in the moment. Think you’re just along for the ride? There’s another perspective, too. You’re not alone. You become your own strongest ally, and when you are (and aren’t) experiencing a panic attack, this is a vital truth and strength. You are immensely brave.
Own Your Strengths to Deal With Your Panic Attacks
Know that no one is “normal”. Consider the new perspectives and strengths you have gained through experiencing your panic attacks.
Find empowerment in the fact that you face your fear and trauma head on. Take time after your panic attack, when you feel safe, to write about your experience objectively so that you can keep track of prospective triggers and patterns with the attacks. The act of journaling will help you divert your anxiety of anticipation of having a panic attack.
Think about what calms you and what mechanisms help you to cope with the panic attacks. Meditation and breathing exercises give you something to focus your attention on and regulate your breathing. If you witness triggers affecting you, leave the environment to take a moment, if possible.
When experiencing a panic attack, consider using your sensitivity to details to your advantage. Choose an object close to you, or far away, to focus on. Focus on the color and the patterns of your shoes. Feel the texture of your laces to ground your awareness. Sometimes, focusing on something outside of yourself distracts you from your pounding heart — and calms you.
Do not be ashamed of your panic attacks. It’s a traumatic experience that makes you feel like you have no control over your body or your life, but the experience does make you stronger and braver.
There is strength in acknowledging the spectrum of human emotion — it’s anxiety, vulnerability and capacity for humility and empathy.