I’d like to think I’ve been fairly candid on this blog thus far. It’s not the easiest thing for me to do, so I’ve made a conscious decision to try my best to be vulnerable. After all, having a blog is probably unnecessary if you don’t make an effort to open up.
However, this topic feels a little more daunting to try and conquer. I have a lot to say about it, but there is such a deep stigma surrounding mental illness. But I know I’m not the only one who is facing these invisible struggles, so I’m going for it.
So let me try and describe what it’s like when I have a panic attack.
The word I use for how it always starts is “grabby.” My fists will start opening and closing uncontrollably. My breath gets short and shallow. I have a sensation like I’m going to fall over. I want to find something sturdy to hold onto but nothing feels sufficient. Sometimes I’ll start holding my head and grabbing my hair. Not pulling it, just… grabbing it. Most times I hyperventilate. I rock back and forth and if it’s severe I’ll start banging my head or my back against a wall. I won’t exactly cry, but I’m sure whatever it sounds like is unsettling. Sometimes there’s no sound, just gasps for air.
It feels like I’m collapsing. It feels like someone is choking me. It feels like there’s a bag over my head and I can’t get it off. It feels like being in the ocean but the waves are coming too quickly and as soon as I get a breath, another wave comes and pushes me down again. If you have ever experienced that, it also feels like the panic you feel when you can’t get a break from the waves. It feels like I’m dying.
And no, I’m not exaggerating. If anyone reading this suffers from panic disorder, you know I’m not exaggerating. If you don’t… well, here we go.
The first time I realized something might not be right was during my first year of college. I would toss and turn at night, obsessing over the idea that my alarm might not go off in the morning. I would check it over and over, at least three times in a row, and if it felt “wrong” I would start all over. If something interrupted me or distracted me, I would start all over. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I would, you guessed it, start all over. This led to having to set multiple alarms and having to repeat this process for all of them. At one point in my life, I had alarms set on four different devices. And then I started doing this with the coffee maker when I set the automatic brew feature. And on and on. This cycle of obsessive thoughts about not hearing the alarm, oversleeping and missing class caused me to panic. While most people might just think, “Well, if I miss class, I miss class,” I would head into a tailspin of “cycling,” where I would convince myself that missing class would cause me to fail and then I would get kicked out of school. And on and on.
The obsessive thoughts led to compulsions. Most of my compulsions manifest themselves as checking tendencies, but I find myself counting things sometimes too. If I’m in public and start cycling, sometimes I’ll start counting on my fingers, arbitrary numbers over and over again, trying to be discreet.
It didn’t take me long to realize that this was not normal and probably not healthy. It also didn’t take long for me to see that along with the OCD, I was experiencing generalized anxiety and panic. I just didn’t know that these were disorders with names. I thought I was just overreacting.
The problem, besides the anxiety disorders themselves, was that I was not prepared to admit it out loud. I was not prepared to ask for help. And I was absolutely, definitely not prepared to tell my family.
I have a very close relationship with my family. I had a wonderful childhood. I have never experienced trauma. My parents have given my brother and me everything they could and I am so incredibly fortunate. So I felt ungrateful, panicking about literally nothing and telling them I needed to get help for something that was all in my head. I think a lot of us fall into this trap.
The first time someone found me having a panic attack was when my roommate heard me hyperventilating from the hallway. She found me in my room, grabbing my hair and rocking back and forth on the floor. With some convincing, I decided to talk to a counselor.
Telling my family that I was struggling was hard. I could see that as much as they love me, they just couldn’t understand it. But that was okay because they supported me, and I have been grateful for that.
But supporting someone in their hypothetical anxiety is very different from supporting them in actuality when they can’t breathe and feel like they are actually going to die.
I try to see it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t struggle with mental illness. If you see someone sitting at the table, laughing and participating in conversation, and the next thing you know they’re breathing like they’re drowning and are rocking against a wall, it must seem a little ridiculous. Especially when they have never experienced anything that would logically cause this. I get it.
But please hear me when I say that I genuinely, seriously, literally feel like I am dying. I am never, ever having a panic attack by choice. I cannot simply “stop.” If I could, I most certainly would.
So you can imagine how it grinds my gears when someone says, “It’s really not a big deal. Just calm down and try to relax. Don’t worry about it!”
While these little tips come from a place of support, they do not help. Telling me to just calm down makes me panic more. If it were possible, I definitely would have stopped worrying about it already. I understand that having a panic attack because a room is a little noisy is not reasonable. Believe me, I KNOW it is not reasonable.
But that’s kind of the point. ANXIETY DISORDERS AND MENTAL ILLNESS ARE NOT REASONABLE.
Just like tonsillitis is not reasonable, or a broken arm, or the flu. Illness of any sort is inconvenient and frustrating. Telling someone to not worry in regards to their physical ailment is ludicrous. Telling someone to not worry in regards to their mental illness is equally as ludicrous.
… I actually feel good about getting that out.
So, you may be asking, what can you do to help?
Let me start by saying that I’m no expert. I only know my anxiety, my panic, my OCD. Which are, fortunately, mild. Mental illness is fluid, and it is not the same for everyone. My panic attacks probably look completely different from other people’s. So all I can do is speak from my experiences.
When I’m panicking, when I think I’m dying, even when I’m just grippy and need to get out of whatever situation I’m in because I’m starting to cycle, the most helpful thing is knowing that the person I’m with understands. If I’m with you and I tell you I’m getting panicky, a great thing to ask me is how you can help. Offering to help me find a way to remove myself from the situation is helpful, as I’m probably not thinking straight enough to find a way out. Suggesting that I try and regulate my breathing helps.
If I’m already in a full-blown panic attack, just putting a hand on my arm or hand helps. Generally speaking, I don’t love physical touch, but when I’m panicking and feel like I’m suffocating it helps just knowing that another human being is there, that the room isn’t moving, that if I was actually in danger the person with me would be getting me help. Reminding me that the panic isn’t real helps. Not in a demeaning way, like I’m making it all up, but just a gentle reminder that it can’t cause me any physical harm, that it can only last a few minutes at most, that I’m not alone.
Ultimately, it boils down to compassion.
I don’t expect everyone to understand anxiety, just like I won’t ever understand blindness. It’s impossible to fully understand something you have never experienced for yourself. However, not understanding something is not an excuse to lack empathy. The fact that you have never experienced it does not mean that someone else hasn’t.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, first, I’m shocked, so thank you. Second, I hope this helps you in some way. If you don’t suffer from mental illness, I hope this helps you understand a little more. And if you do, I think it’s essential that you remember that you are by no means alone. So many of us deal with different forms of these invisible struggles and hope to keep them invisible so as to not inconvenience anyone. But maybe if more of us talk about it, we won’t be so afraid to claim it as part of who we are. I hope this helps with that, even in the smallest way.
P.S. Like I said, I’m no expert on mental illness. If you’re interested in learning more about how to support yourself or those in your life who struggle with these illnesses, here are a few great resources: