When I began suffering from anxiety I had no clue what it was. There was not a wide discussion about it within the media or within schools. I thought I was just of a nervous temperament. I’ve always pinpointed fifteen as the age where my anxiety fully broke into my life. However, now I’m aware of the signs, feelings, emotions, triggers I have good reason to believe anxiety has been pulling me back for nearly my whole life. I would love to go into detail and explain all of this to you but, within this post, I would like to focus on one profound element on anxiety.
An element of anxiety that I find is widely discussed but severely misunderstood on several fronts. I always find myself tripping over my words when I’m asked to describe a panic attack to someone or when I’m trying to advise whoever’s with me on how to help. Furthermore, my anxiety attacks often surface in social situations and a large proportion of my panic stems from the fear of what people will think of me and, that inescapable tide of guilt that comes afterwards. When asked to write on anxiety I wanted to produce a piece of writing that someone could forward to their best friends, partner or just save for themselves in order to better explain what a panic attack is.
I’m obviously not a doctor. The following descriptions and advice are coming from my own personal experience, please do not use this as a diagnosis or as an exact step by step. Have a read, relate to your own experience and I just hope that somewhere in here you find comfort that you are not alone or, confidence that you can help a partner/friend/family member through those difficult moments they’ve not been able to fully explain to you before.
Finally, I realised when reading this back I distinguish a difference in anxiety and panic attacks in my initial subheadings but do not explain the difference or define a difference in my descriptions. Panic attacks are out of the blue, it’s an unexpected forceful attack that is triggered by your fight or flight response. Anxiety attacks usually build in intensity and are happening due to a specific trigger. So to link with the following descriptions you will read: I have panic attacks when I’m often out in a social space and despite feeling completely happy my body just freaks out on me, I can do nothing to really stop it as it’s taken me by surprise. Anxiety attacks occur for me when I’m feeling overwhelmed with stress, upset or worry.
How do panic/anxiety attacks present themselves?
In many different forms is the quickest answer to that question. I used to believe that panic attacks could only be this dramatic loss of breath and complete meltdown. It was during my counselling sessions last university year that I was told panic attacks appear in a variety of forms. It was this piece of knowledge that made me realise just how long anxiety has been present in my life.
So, let’s begin with what I would call ‘the big one’. I’m talking the anxiety attacks that take full control of your body and leave you collapsing under the weight of their power. I often experience ‘the big one’ when something has been niggling at me for a long while. I often visualise a ‘keeper of anxiety’ within my body, a worrisome man who likes to pull the reigns when I'm about to engage in something he’s completely not ready for. Quite often- this comes when I’m in crowds. I love music. Festivals and concerts are my happy place yet, there where I've had the most panic
attacks. Alice wants nothing more than to be right at the barrier under the nose of her favourite act or, in the heart of a crowd with all her friends. That little keeper of anxiety that sits in her chest does not. He completely works against me and yanks me back. I end up literally fighting myself. An overwhelming sense of fear shudders through my body. Physically this looks like me crying heavily, my breathing becomes rapid and loud, I begin to sweat or shiver, I begin
to frantically look for an open space and can often just want to fall to the floor and hold myself tight. Internally I’m engaging in a bloody battle between these two completely contrasting mindsets that are both struggling for dominance. I’m trying to move forward yet I’m being tackled to the ground by this masked annoyance. It’s the most frustrating experience I’ve ever had. It makes me feel like I just want to tear my hair out. I feel so inept afterwards. On more than one occasion I've uttered the words ‘i hate myself’. I feel ashamed that I’ve let down friends I couldn’t meet. I feel embarrassed that someone has maybe had to witness the attack. I feel incapable of doing things I want to do and, it makes me fearful for future opportunities. All those feelings along with the physical exhaustion just leaves me feeling rather empty and heading straight for bed so that I can regain energy.
My counsellor made me aware of how anxiety attacks can also present themselves as sudden bursts of irritability, anger or upset. I would not say that I’m an angry person at all. Yet, they’ll be moments where that little keeper of anxiety just cannot rationally deal with everything circling in my head. It’s often during tense moments or where I’m at bursting point with stress. I become flooded with anger and upset, the anger often being directed towards myself. It’s like watching a toddler. Without knowing almost, my muscles flail out, Niagra falls is flooding out of my eyes and I shout out in a voice I didn’t know I was even capable off. Often I won’t even know what’s sent me off or specifically angered me. It’s like that keeper has just had enough and has wiped his desk clean in an over-dramatic strop. There’s just no controlling it, it’s literally as if I become a puppet and that anonymous keeper is pulling the strings.
The worst- I once woke up completely struggling for breath with that pounding sensation in my chest. In those instances, I like to envision that little keeper being that terrified he’s literally fighting to just break out of my body.
Below is a list of all the signs/symptoms I can think off in order to spot/recognise a panic attack:
Hot Flushes or Sudden Chills
Numbness- I often get tingling sensations in my hands or feet, hence the flailing of muscles. Heart Palpitations
Smothering Sensation- I often begin to really struggle for breath as if someone was choking me
What can trigger a panic/anxiety attack?
This is so personal to the individual. So, I would change this question to ‘how can I identify my anxiety triggers’? I began writing down either on my phone or in a diary the exact environment and circumstances affecting me when I ever experienced an anxiety attack. Over time triggers that were not obvious became clear when I identified those patterns.
What coping mechanisms can stop or deter a panic attack?
Practising good breathing is an essential coping mechanism that you should train yourself to master if you suffer from anxiety. Being able to focus entirely on your breath gives you a distraction from your immediate setting and, encourages you to instantly slow down that rapid breath pattern that’s taken over. Once you slow your breathing down you anchor yourself allowing you to rationally deal with whatever has triggered the attack.
Journaling. My anxiety stems from lots of bad memories, unnecessary worries that plague my thoughts. Journaling allows me to bring those thoughts out of my head and onto a physical bit of paper. It lets me de-clutter my mind.
Blurting. If I’m having an anxiety attack at home or in more private space I instantly reach for paper and a pen. What I do next looks I N S A NE if anyone witnesses it but, I literally write at rapid-fire speed and just get absolutely everything in my head down on paper. There’s this huge sense of instantaneous relief when you finish and look back at this piece of paper cluttered with thoughts. Going back through that paper and dealing with each thing written down one by one allows me to rationalise the thoughts that have triggered my fight or flight response.
Plan. If, like me, you know you’re more likely to have an anxiety attack in a specific setting such as a crowded space plan out every scenario. I only really tend to go to events like that with somebody who knows that I could potentially suffer an attack. Knowing that my companion is equally as prepared to look after me, get me out of the crowd and
help out chills me out before I’ve even set out. I often take a couple of Kalm tablets if I’m heading into a situation where I could become worrisome or stressed. I plan journeys so that no matter the circumstances I will arrive places in plenty of time. Planning just allows you to minimise the amount of factors that could trigger an attack.
What should I say or do when someone is having a panic attack?
Give them space and listen to them. There’s no need to make a fuss. You don’t need to shower them in comforts or throw yourself on them to try to ease their cries or shakes. Get them out of that space. If they don’t want to be touched, guide them to a quiet corner. Say if you happen to be in the middle of a festival crowd, grab their hand and get them out as quickly as possible with minimal fuss. Give them all the time in the world. Reassure them that you’re there and that it’s okay. That’s all you need to do. The person will tell you what they need or tell you what they want you to do. Let them guide you, don’t try and overpower them. Panic/Anxiety attacks are scary because for however long you lose complete control over your senses. Not having that full control over your body and mind is terrifying the last thing they need is you also overpowering their sense of self. Listening and reacting with compassion and understanding is the best thing you could ever do for the person suffering the attack.
It’s hard to talk about anxiety. Mainly because it’s such a personal experience. What I feel and experience might be nothing like what you who is reading this feels. It’s so intrinsic to the individual that putting into words makes you feel so vulnerable. Literally (I would imagine) the same feeling as standing on a stage in just your pants haha. The thing is, we all need to brave that vulnerability when it comes to discussing anxiety. I for one, had no idea what anxiety even was when I was fifteen. I struggled along for ages without realising that I needed some form of help/guidance as what was happening to me was much more than just nerves. I am so grateful that I was asked to write this post and, I just hope it’s been useful in some way to any of you that are learning to manage anxiety. If you want to hear more from me, you can find my writings at www.navigatingtwenties.com ! Till then, take care of yourselves.