Monday, 9 January 2017

Panic Attacks | Experience & Tips

I came across this definition for a panic attack: 'a sudden overwhelming feeling of acute and disabling anxiety'. Although factually correct and accurate, I don't think this conveys how wretched and distressing they truly are.

I have dealt with panic attacks for a very long time now. It's something I don't talk about a lot because discussing them and even sometimes just merely thinking about them can spark some of my personal symptoms. Also, some people really don't understand panic attacks/anxiety/mental health in general and I'd rather avoid being exposed to their ignorance to be honest. These narrow minded individuals seem to think that panic attacks are "put on" and "designed for attention". They honestly believe that people choose to have disabling, distressing panic attacks and anxiety and it baffles me. If you've ever had your anxiety or panic attacks diminished and you're genuinely struggling, please listen to me.... 

They are wrong. How you feel and what you are going through is valid and it is important. You are not an attention seeker. You are not alone either.

Panic attacks are involuntary (as long as you are not actually faking one, which some people actually do seem to do.... wHY). They are not convenient - they often strike suddenly and for no real reason at all. I have had panic attacks both at home and in public places before. I rarely ever feel one coming before the last second and then it's too late anyway, because I'm already hyperventilating. People often stare and cast judgement, which often makes the experience a hundred times worse and actually prolongs my panic. However, there are sometimes (emphasis on sometimes) people who do check that I am ok and are good at dealing with the situation. My aim in life is to make more people helpful and caring if they see someone having a panic attack, because the people around you and their actions can honestly make such a difference.

There are many symptoms that you may experience during a panic attack. I won't list all of them here, however they are freely available on many health websites if you are curious. My personal panic attack symptoms are: heart palpitations (that often make me feel like I'm having a freaking heart attack), crying (horrendously), hyperventilating, shaking, nausea, teeth chattering, sweating, disassociation (I basically leave my body), dizziness and tingling in my fingers/toes. I'll sometimes only experience a few of these symptoms for a short period of time, but there can be other times where I experience nearly all of these symptoms over a longer period of time. I am sure some of you reading this blog post experience panic in a very similar way and some of you who experience it differently.

How can you manage a panic attack? 

I do think this is a very personal question and it is extremely dependent on the situation and the individual. I'm also very far from managing panic attacks myself, so please do not think I am a 'master' at controlling them, because I'm far from it. I think my next step is to try and notice the signs earlier and control the panic as much as possible. I also acknowledge that usually there are no obvious early signs or warnings that appear for me personally, so I'll have to try my best to manage the situation whilst in the middle of a panic attack. Nonetheless, I thought I'd share a few of my tips that I have found helpful over the years when I have had really bad panic attacks. Some of these may work for you, others may not. That's ok too, we all find different things helpful. 

1. Take yourself away from the situation, person or thing. Sometimes this can be very difficult, especially if it is not convenient for you to leave or leaving would cause more distress i.e. in a classroom and you would then have to stand up in front of everybody to exit. However, excusing yourself or just bolting out the door is fine and actually part of our 'fight or flight' response. Primarily, you need to look after yourself and assess the situation. If the environment is too oppressive, then you should leave for a break until you feel ready to go back in again or excuse yourself permanently.  

2.  Focus on your breathing. Your thoughts, feelings and body will be travelling in all different directions, however you can control your breathing, even if it feels like you can't. It is all about trying your best to find focus. One method that I was taught that is particularly helpful with this is the candle scenario. You imagine a candle that is a few inches away from your mouth and you have to try your best not to blow it out. The candle could be on a birthday cake or a Yankee candle - it can be whatever you'd like, just as long as you can clearly imagine it. When you're inhaling and exhaling, imagine the candle and try to slow down and breathe more gently. Hyperventilating would definitely blow the candle out, but slow and steady breathing exercises would only cause the flame to flicker. It is far from easy, however the more you practice this, the more effective it can become. 

3. Remind yourself that you will be ok and that the panic will pass. Although it can feel like you are having a heart attack, you are not. Although it may feel like you're going to pass out, it is actually physically impossible to do so whilst you're in the midst of an attack. Also, panic attacks don't last forever. They usually range between 5 - 20 minutes and they rarely last more than that (unless you experience one panic attack after another consecutively). I like to remind myself these things during the panic because it can help centre me and remind me that even though I'm not ok in that moment, I will be eventually. The panic attack is just my body's way of dealing with the situation. It is a temporary reaction and even though it's really awful and horrible, it won't last forever and I will get through it. Again, trying to access optimistic and positive thoughts is a challenge, but not impossible. The more you practice, the stronger mentality you create for yourself. 

4. Be kind to yourself after a panic attack. I often feel exhausted, emotionally drained and ready for my bed. Get yourself a drink and a snack you enjoy and try your best to relax. If you're at school, feel too crappy to be there and it's possible for you to go home, then you should take that opportunity. Mental health is just as important as physical health. If someone had a really bad migraine would you expect them to push on? On the other hand, there are times where it is not ideal for you to rest and go home, so in those situations just try to take it as easy as possible and be kind to yourself. 

5. After the attack, try to pinpoint any obvious triggers. By identifying triggers, you may be able to prevent the panic attack in the future and understand more about what has made you feel anxious. Perhaps it is something someone said, or an object in front of you or a certain situation. Sometimes you need to look deeper and realise it could be a number of things in combination. If you manage to identify a trigger, write it down and think about ways you could either a) prevent experiencing it again in the future or b) if you have to experience it, what could you do to make the situation less stressful? 

I hope some of you found these tips useful. I've wanted to write a mental health blogpost for a while now because I want to help any of you out there feel less alone with this. Whether you find one of these tips useful or you can identify with some of the panic attack symptoms and feel less ashamed for experiencing them - I just hope this post brought you some comfort.  

Take care, Emma x
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