Panic attacks are things uniquely terrifying and humiliating.
I don’t plan on talking much on here about my personal experience with panic attacks and anxiety, but I feel like it is important to discuss this kind of fear and anxiety in light of how our society handles mental health.
We (or, at least, Americans; I cannot speak for other countries) live in a society where mental illness is not seen as serious unless it affects someone other than the afflicted. We all mourn the loss of lives taken as a side effect of untreated illness (as we should), but how many grieve the cases where a single person fell apart inside without assistance, where they may not have reached out to hurt someone, but they also did not reach out for help. This, most likely because they feared the ridicule and shoving off that would probably come with it. Empathy is key to being human. We have to learn, as a society, to care for the individual, not because they may harm others (that is important of course), but because they are human too and in pain.
I suffer from cued panic attacks. This means that there are certain situations and things that trigger an attack. My attacks include shaking, sweating, heavy breathing, accelerated heart rate, the feeling that I will be sick, and an intense fear that stays with me as an undercurrent for the rest of the day. Normally, an attack will only last for a few minutes, the longest stretching into roughly an hour. However, they don’t just come in a simple burst of the above symptoms. Little jumps in blood pressure, a twisting feeling in my stomach, and a tightening of my muscles can come briefly throughout the day. Those feelings often pass immediately and do not affect the rest of my day, unlike a full-blown attack.
Without going into too much detail, my triggers relate to a certain situation that centers on an individual from my past. Glimpses of someone who looks familiar to that person may make the tendons in my neck stand out. I avoid that stranger, heart beating fast the entire way. A buzzing sensation may take up space in my stomach when I go somewhere I might see this person, and only after I find myself safe will I clench my fists to get rid of the shaking in my hands.
Sometimes it’s not so easy to escape. Sometimes it seeks me out when I’m least expecting it. One instance came up when I received an anonymous message on a website I frequent that brought a surge of bad memories with it. It was one of my worst attacks, and I kept glancing over my shoulder the rest of the day.
The point of all this is that not everyone is willing to share the information I have just posted. And with good reason. In the past I have been told that I am over-dramatic, making a big deal out of nothing, and I need to suck it up and move on. It is a painful and difficult thing to share one’s experience with anxiety and mental distress, so most people don’t. They are told on a daily basis that other things are more important than their mental health, and if they ever express concern for this issue they are being melodramatic or making it up.
It has taken me a lot of work on myself to get to the point where I feel comfortable telling people about my attacks and the issues that accompany them. I was blessed enough to be with someone who understood my problem and did not pressure me to put on a good face and pretend like everything was alright. I was also blessed to take up a station in a work environment that made me feel protected and loved; my coworkers and my boss did not question my feelings or actions, instead offering whatever assistance they could provide to make me feel safe and comfortable. These people, whether they know it or not, did a lot in helping me accept and work on my problems. Their empathy and willingness to accommodate me made it easier for me to admit to having a serious issue and ask for help.
When you suffer from a panic attack, you feel like the whole world is closing in on you. Your body betrays you and leaves you shaking and often in tears. It can be demoralizing and humiliating to have anyone see you like that. You feel like a child or an idiot. You fight to get control of yourself, and it makes it worse. Finally, you have to give in and let the fear take over what is supposed to be yours: your mind and body. That feeling of no longer being autonomous or even a whole person is terrible and something I would not wish on anyone.
If anyone reads this and identifies with what I have said, I encourage you to find someone you can trust and ask them to listen. Even having someone sit with you and let you vent is supremely helpful. There are services available, and I encourage anyone who is financial able to take advantage of them.
Mental health is as serious as physical health, and it is time our society treated it as such.