Anatomy of a Panic Attack

For any of you who may not know me: I'm Billie. Wife, mother, and bossy Italian human with anxiety. I've written some over the years about my struggles with anxiety (which you can read about by clicking HERE and HERE) and over time, my relationship with my anxiety has changed. I had several (blissful) years where my anxiety lived on a shelf somewhere in my brain and didn't bother to show itself.

Then I became a mother. My entire chemical makeup got a one-two punch and was transformed. My anxiety re-emerged as an entirely new beast. I had postpartum anxiety, and I struggled immensely. Now, I am in a much better place mentally, and physically, but I STILL experience anxiety and, on occasion, full-blown panic attacks.

One of the bits of feedback I always get is that the people around me would never know I was having trouble. I seem totally steady and "put together" on the outside. The "you seem fine to me" phenomenon, I suspect, is not something I experience in isolation. In an effort to bridge the gap between what people think they know, and what happens for a person in the grips of panic,  I want to attempt to dissect a recent panic attack. I hope this will help people without anxiety understand what happens to those of us who have it, despite whatever we might seem to look like externally.

I feel it's important to note this is merely my experience. There are as many types of panic attacks and  presentations of anxiety as there are people. It's a highly individualized thing. I also believe in the universality of our experiences, and I want to give voice to something that simply isn't talked about with enough regularity. At the end, I'm also giving a short blurb on what I think is helpful when I am experiencing anxiety or panic. I am hoping readers will comment in and give every one more helpful tips as we collectively raise awareness!

The Lead Up
It was a normal Monday, and I knew my head didn't feel quite right. After lunch, I tried to rest a bit to try and cool off the "buzzing" I was experiencing in my head. After about 40 minutes, I decided I needed to go run my errands--that it would be easier without my daughter in tow, given how I was feeling.

I was knocking out the grocery shopping for the rest of the week. The grocery store was packed to the gills, a common occurrence for our small beach town when it's brimming with vacationers during the hot, summer months. The lines were about three people deep no matter where I went, so I pulled up my cart and prepared to wait patiently. As I got in line, I began to feel some tingles in my body and I thought I had better distract myself while I waited.

Being an anxiety veteran, I am unsure if this distraction tactic is a coping mechanism, a reflex, or a bit of both, but I worked to pull my focus from the "bigger picture" of the bustling noise of the store to the more "close up" details around me. I did this through observation...a magazine with a picture of Megan Markle on it, Cosmopolitan Magazine with some ridiculous headline about some sexual position that will change your life, a man tapping his thumb on his cart... I tried a little too frantically to concentrate on something because I noticed I was being pulled from one thing to the next and  quickly getting overwhelmed.

**The distinction for me with my panic attacks is that they are not brought on by a specific fear, or thought. While that may have been true in the past (I once was deathly afraid of thunderstorms for a period of about a year), at this point, I seem to only experience the physical side of anxiety. My inability to focus is almost like having the opposite of thoughts...there were no thoughts, but an over-abundance of feelings.

The Attack
That was when the switch flipped. All at once I felt a strong sense of disorientation come over me. It is akin to suddenly feeling the ground shift underneath of me. I had been cold in the store, so earlier I put on a light sweater, but at this moment, it was as though someone threw a ball of fire into the center of my chest and it suddenly exploded, sending a fiery sensation up through every limb and out of my head. A burst of heat overtook me swiftly, as I struggled to get out of my sweater. My heart was racing wildly. My palms were suddenly clammy, sound began to take on a "wonky" quality, and the inability to focus turned to sheer panic. In this flight/fight/freeze scenario, I was frozen on the spot.

On the outside, I probably only looked as thought I got a little warm and needed to remove my sweater, but on the inside, I silently wondered if I was going to faint and hit the floor or dissolve into thin air. I took a breath, and I told myself to bend my knees, which I did. The lights were overwhelming, and I wanted badly to run from the store because standing still--staying patient--seemed an insurmountable task. Simultaneously, I needed to sit down and/or run a marathon, neither of which were possible in the moment because I could barely move. I realized I might cry. I tried to orient myself, even though my vision was somewhat obscured by my mental experience. I repeated to myself in my head "stay. stay. stay." (This is a technique I got from meditation.)

My hands were shaking as I saw a tiny sliver of the conveyor belt had opened, and I began to put my items on the belt, still unsure if I was going to be able to talk to the woman behind the register. I felt desperately alone in a sea of people. There was all of this brisk life happening around me, and I was struggling to catch up to it... in the grips of anxiety to this degree, it's as though sound and light, even faces, were distorted and the ability to process and recognize what's happening was delayed.

I focused on putting each item on the conveyor belt, my hands shakily grasping them, I worried I would drop them. By the time I was able to connect my eyes to the familiar woman at the register, the worst was, in fact, passed. I was still not myself, and I was fighting back tears. I said very little as the transaction concluded.

The Comedown
By the time I was able to pay for my groceries and began walking out the store, a huge relief was settling over me. I knew that by the time I reached the car I was "safe" and could go on with my day, so to speak. I was still shaking, and not quite myself, but I was in a phase of recovering. I can't really remember putting my groceries in the car, but I did.

Once I was back in the driver's seat, I slid on my sunglasses and let the tears roll. I want to note that crying during or after a panic attack may be common for many people. For me, though, this was pretty new (and not unwelcome as it felt like a concrete release). I put my hand on my heart, told myself I had done well, and I told myself "I love you." And I made a decision right there to allow myself however much time I needed to cry it out.

After this ordeal, I was quite tired both mentally and physically. It was an overwhelming moment that lasted about 10 minutes or infinity, depending on your perspective. I fell asleep quite early that night, and needed extra rest to accommodate what had happened that day. I was grateful that the people around me were as gentle with me as I was with myself in those moments.

How you can help 
In this case I was by myself when my panic attack occurred. Sometimes this is a blessing, and sometimes this is a curse. If you are in the presence of someone who is experiencing a panic attack, they are likely feeling very overwhelmed. The first best thing you can do is to say as few words to them as possible. Start with something along the lines of, "I am here with you, and you're safe. I'm not going to say much until you are ready. Let me know."

Offering a loving presence without expectation, at least for me, takes the pressure off. I don't want to explain how I feel because sometimes I can't. But it's nice to know that someone is with me. Another thing you can do is breathe deeply (and sort of exaggerate your breathing sound) so that the person having the panic has something to latch on to. You could even say, "I'm going to take some deep breaths, if you want to do it with me."

Lastly, wait for their cues. They may want to walk, they may want to sit still. They may request something from you, if only you give them the time. If this is someone you are close to, like a family member, I would highly suggest asking them in advance of a panic attack what the best reaction for them is...a sort of panic action plan, if you will. You can make agreements like, "I will not touch you unless you touch my hand, then I will know it's okay for me to hug you." or "We will immediately find a quiet place alone and ask others who may want to help to give us ten minutes."

I hope that those who found this helpful will share it with their loved ones, and open conversations (both online and in real life) about how they can support their loved ones with anxiety, or how they can be supported. If you have a technique that has worked well for you, please share!!!