I experienced something the other day that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time; a truly random, out of the blue panic attack. I still occasionally have panic attacks triggered by stress or my environment, but I had thought my days of inexplicable attacks were behind me. It was disconcerting, to say the least, but I wanted to use this as an opportunity to talk about panic attacks, something I haven’t really talked about as much as I should.
They can be very scary, even if you know what’s happening to you. If you don’t, they can be downright terrifying. When I had my first panic attack at the age of 14 I didn’t know what was going on, and I thought I was dying. I remember I was watching a documentary on J.R.R. Tolkien when out of the blue it hit me. My heart was racing, I thought it was going to burst out of my chest. I ran to my bed, curled up in a blanket, and called my mom at work. She rushed home and helped me calm down. It was bad, for weeks I couldn’t be in the same room as a TV that was turned on, and it was another 10 years before I could bring myself to finally watch that Tolkien documentary all the way through.
It’s so weird how panic attacks make the brain jump to silly, illogical conclusions. Obviously, TVs aren’t anything to panic about, but that panic was so intense that it created a strong link between TVs and this perception of danger. But the more I learned about panic attacks, and came to understand them, the easier it has become to manage them and not allow them to create these harmful associations.
The most important thing to know is that panic attacks can’t hurt you, and they certainly can’t kill you. A panic attack is basically a misfire of the fight-or-flight response, part of our survival instincts. It’s supposed to allow us to fight our way through, or escape danger. Killing us, or causing us to pass out, is a pretty nonproductive way for our survival instincts to protect us. It only becomes a problem when it fires for no reason, and that’s what causes a panic disorder.
Let’s fast forward to the other day when I had this latest attack. I woke up ready to tackle the day and sat on my couch with a cup of coffee (decaf, of course) and my tablet to do some reading. After a few moments, it hit me, the all-too-familiar feeling of an oncoming panic attack. I was scared at first, but I reminded myself “this is just a panic attack, I just need to breathe, it will pass”. It sounds a little silly, but I also whisper to myself, “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
The next day I woke up, grabbed some coffee, picked up my tablet, and sat on the couch to read. I didn’t have a panic attack, and I wasn’t scared of having one. Why? Because I fought back against the panic, I didn’t let it gain power over me, and I consciously avoided making associations between panic and harmless activities.
I’ve found the most important weapon in the battle against panic disorder is knowledge. This article is a fantastic read if this is something you struggle with, and explains panic attacks better than I ever could. It’s not something that you can change overnight, but by arming yourself with knowledge and self-talk, and practicing with these tools, you can reduce the amount of control panic attacks have over your life.