If you haven’t experienced a panic attack yourself, it can be very difficult to imagine what one looks and feels like. The name is somewhat deceptive. We all know what panic feels like, right?
‘Did I leave the oven on?’ ‘Did I turn off my hair straighteners?’
That bolt of adrenaline through your body as these thoughts jump, uninvited, into your mind. Then, you either run back to check if you’re close enough or reassure yourself that you did turn it off. Once it’s dealt with, you likely won’t think about it again. If you have these sorts of thoughts often, and they’re generally irrational and harder to stop, then that may in fact be anxiety.
Sometimes though, that sudden rush of terror isn’t prompted by anything at all. Or it is, but it is wholly out of proportion with the panic that results. My first panic attack happened at church. I’d volunteered to run the children's’ hour one Sunday morning in the summer so that the usual leaders could take a break and attend the full sermon. The week before my session was due to take place, the guy in charge of organizing it showed me where the kids hour takes place and where I could find the arts and crafts things. It sounded simple and I mistakenly thought I wouldn’t be alone in running the session as no other preparation or hints had been provided.
My first reaction to finding out, right before the session took place, that I had been expected to prepare a Bible story and related activities were defensive anger.
Heart-racing, I yelled at the organizer in the church foyer, before running off to the bathroom. In the bathroom stall, I dissolved into panic. My heart pounded so quickly that I believed with absolute certainty that it couldn’t take it, that it would stop beating entirely. I wept as it struck me that I was about to die in a church toilet cubicle.
I couldn’t catch my breath, which made me panic even more. Much of it is a blur, until around ten minutes had passed and the adrenaline began to run out. Eventually, drenched in sweat from head to toe, throat, and lungs aching, eyes stinging from all of the crying I’d done, I emerged from the stall. Exhausted, I sneaked into the hall and into the pew beside my (fairly confused) mother.
In spite of how awful that experience had been, it took me until that night to fully realize what had happened. What I’d been through hadn’t looked the way panic attacks look on TV, so it couldn’t have been, right? I spent a few hours reading about panic attacks online and in the end accepted that that was what had happened.
I wish that that had been a one-time thing and I never experienced another panic attack, but unfortunately, I’ve had a few since then. What has surprised me each time is that there are often differences between them. When I had that first panic attack, I’d been certain I was going to die, the next time, I didn’t think I’d die, but that everyone I knew would ‘know’ that I was crazy.
This one happened at work. On a busy Sunday afternoon in the sportswear store where I worked, a silly misunderstanding leads to a customer screaming in my face. The panic this time was instant, no time to defend myself or retaliate. Instead, I held up my hands and ran for the staff room.
In the tiny kitchen out back, I paced and paced, my heart raced (my smartwatch later showing a peak of 210bpm), tears streamed down my face, and my thoughts ran incoherently through my mind. In spite of feeling my chest could burst, it wasn’t death that I felt would come for me this time — it was the certainty that everyone I worked with, my family and friends, would all know that I was crazy.
I was sure that everyone would know there was something incredibly wrong with me, that I would lose my job, never be able to get another one, that my life was ruined. Nothing had prompted this but I didn’t doubt it in the slightest. When my manager finally found out there was a problem and came to find me, he found me pacing up and down the tiny kitchen, sobbing, and unable to explain why. He assured me that he knew the incident hadn’t been anything like the customer told him, he trusted me, and yet I didn’t stop crying.
That baffled him. He left, and a steady stream of my co-workers trooped in to try and calm me down, with not one of them realizing what was happening. I don’t blame them for not knowing, but it illustrated the importance of general knowledge about mental health.
When someone has a panic attack on TV, they breathe loudly, have to sit down, and after a few minutes, it passes. They rarely show the attacks which last for over fifteen minutes. The most common use I’ve seen for a character having a panic attack is when they’re a villain who is beginning to have a change of heart; not the best portrayal of such a common issue. We never get to see the part where they begin to come back to reality, a soaking wet mess, or the fact that it’s so exhausting it can take days to recover.
In real life, a panic attack can look like different things. Something they all have in common though is the overwhelming terror, and the adrenaline that rushes through your system. Though it may look like someone who is crying a lot, on the inside, anything could be happening. Be patient, ask if they need anything, and otherwise be quiet. Maybe don’t send all of their work colleagues into the room one after another to try and fix it, it doesn’t work so well.