I’ve suffered from panic attacks since I was 8 years old. They start with racing thoughts, which lead to a racing heart, churning stomach, sweaty armpits and the overwhelming feeling that something absolutely awful is happening, even if it isn’t. The littlest thing can set off a panic attack, like going to the grocery store after a stressful day. Or a big thing, like taking a trip to see a family member who I have a difficult relationship with.
When an attack starts, it doesn’t matter how much danger I’m actually in. Regardless, my body and mind will feel like it’s the end of the world. It’s pure, raw terror. The worst part is, I have very little control over when an attack will happen. In fact, the fear of having a panic attack is almost as bad as the attack itself.
Happily, while I am still very much prone to panic attacks (I may always be), I have found some ways to ward them off. Therapy, medication (at times), meditation and breathing exercises help a lot. But I have learned that there is something else that helps tremendously—maybe more than anything else.
If I am just starting to feel a panic attack coming on and I feel my thoughts speed up, my heart race and my tummy flutter, I’ve found that the most powerful thing I can do is to tell someone what is going on.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: What good will that do? But for me, part of what goes on during a panic attack is that I become so freaked out about what is happening that I bottle it up inside. I know intellectually that I am overreacting but I don’t want to come across as "crazy," even to people I know and love. I am ashamed about how out of control I feel.
I’ve found that if I can seek out a trusted loved one and just say, 'I’m having a panic attack,' it makes me feel a whole lot better.
What ends up happening is that the thoughts pile up, one upon the other, and they feed into each other, all of them trapped in my head and boiling over. So, I’ve found that if I can seek out a trusted loved one and just say, “I’m having a panic attack,” and then list some of the thoughts in my head, no matter how unhinged they sound, it makes me feel a whole lot better.
It’s like a huge release to purge those thoughts in the moment. Then, they can’t hold me captive anymore. Very often, at that point, the panic attack begins to wind down. At times, it even goes away altogether.
It’s usually my husband who I talk it out with. He knows that I have panic attacks and loves me even if I end up sounding off-kilter. If my husband’s not home, I’ll call or text him. Or I’ll call or text a good friend, one who loves me with that same kind of compassion.
I’ve recently found that I can even tell my kids when I am panicking. I certainly don’t want to scare my kids or make them feel burdened, but they have been around me more than once when I am panicking and I think it makes sense to demystify what is happening.
I’ll say something they can understand like, “Mommy is feeling really stressed out about XYZ right now. Mommy needs to just sit down and breathe. Do you want to breathe with Mommy?”
Doing something like that can make us all feel a whole lot better.
Of course, this is not a foolproof method. If I have already spiraled deep into the panic, it can take a while for the physical sensations to wear off and for my brain to work again. But even if the results aren’t immediate, talking it out always lessens the blow. Most of all, it teaches me that my feelings matter, that I’m not broken and that there are people who love me, no matter what I’m going through.