I want to talk about panic attacks. Or anxiety attacks. Whatever you want to call them. The reason I want to do this is because, certainly for myself when I first started suffering from anxiety attacks, I had no idea what was happening and wasn’t aware I even had any form of anxiety. I’m going to explain my personal experiences of anxiety – they may differ to those of others – but I hope this might help people realise that anxiety affects a lot more people than we think. You might have had a panic attack and never known.
I have two types of panic attacks. One of them I don’t really label as a ‘panic attack’ because I don’t feel like I’m panicking so it feels like mislabelling. However, the first definitely is a panic attack. It is caused by my social anxiety, which I am happy to say I have managed to get very much under control over the past few years. My social anxiety is triggered by unfamiliar public journeys alone. So, basically, if I have to get the train to somewhere I have never been before on my own I get anxious. When I was younger I physically could not take public transport by myself and would not go out unless my mum/dad could give me a lift. I could not even take taxis – and taxis are still something I find very difficult at times. The anxiety would also get bad if I felt remotely threatened, for example if I was around drunk strangers, or frankly (sorry for the stereotype) strange men.
So this panic attack, how did it manifest itself? I’m going to use an example of when I was with two of my friends (I wasn’t even alone) at a train station in winter. It was about 6pm, so not late, and we were getting the train to meet one of my friend’s mums for dinner. We had to walk down an alley type thing to get to the station and it was dark because of the time of year, I felt slightly on edge. I wasn’t panicking at this point but I could feel my palms were sweaty and my heart rate was very slightly faster than usual. All of a sudden some drunk men stumbled towards us and one started pissing practically on us. They shouted things, though it was unclear as to whether they were aiming their proclamations at us or just the world around us. Immediately my heart rate doubled and I was gasping for breath. We kept walking towards the station. We realised these men were also walking to the station now. See, I can safely say now with the benefit of hindsight that these men were not following us and didn’t actually have any interest in us. But in my head, in that moment, I was telling myself something else. “They are going to rape you.” “They are going to grab you and take you away.” “They are going to kill you.” “You are going to die.” These thoughts whirled around in my head and I could not keep them at bay. Suddenly there were tears running down my face, only I wasn’t crying in my usual way. They were just tears of fear, no sobbing or wailing, I simply and truly believed I was going to die in that moment so I was crying in terror. I was stood on the platform, with my two friends sheltering me, genuinely believing the thoughts in my head. I was shaking, unable to breathe evenly; I could only mutter single words at any one time. Eventually the train came and we left the drunkards behind, but my anxiety remained. For the rest of the night I was quiet, still shaking and my heart rate was still too fast. Now my brain was telling me those men were going to find me. I felt as though I was suffocating that entire night, it took a long time for the panic to subside, and it only really did when I went to sleep.
The second type of anxiety attack I have is caused by my general anxiety. The example I will use here is a sensitive one, which I find pretty hard to write about because of the circumstances, but it is the best example I can give. It was late at night and my ex-boyfriend and I were in bed about to go to sleep. I can’t remember what it was but we fell out over something, it was no doubt stupid but it felt so important in the moment. The reason I don’t like to call these episodes anxiety/panic attacks is because I don’t feel anxious in the traditional sense, I’m not panicking about anything. They just are what they are. I felt this heat surge through my body, almost like the feeling you get when you’re really angry at a person, except I wasn’t angry. This heat filled my whole body and I began to want to rip off my skin to cool down. I was sat bolt upright in bed and holding back tears. I cry a lot so I try my best to refrain wherever possible. My eyes were stinging and I was beginning to hyperventilate. We kept arguing, he got more frustrated as I feel deeper into my episode. I began to get angry at myself, a livid monster was inside my head telling me to stop. “Just stop.” “STOP.” “You are bad.” I was just angry. I cannot explain why this happens, I don’t understand why my brain immediately turns to self-loathing but these bullying thoughts start and I can’t stop them. Suddenly I started hitting myself on the head. I smacked my head with my hands over and over again, causing myself as much pain as possible. I started pulling at my hair, wanting to rip it all out. I wanted to get out of my own body. I felt possessed. It was as though my spirit was trying to escape the prison that is my body.
My episodes happened quite frequently towards the end of my relationship. It is only since the break-up that I have realised the trigger was him. That we just weren’t working anymore. But that’s a different story. There were other ways my anger towards myself manifested itself in my episodes – sometimes I would bang my head against a wall, sometimes I would cut myself. I don’t think people really associate self harm with anxiety attacks; it is generally thought to pair with depression/bipolar/BPD/etc. I think anxiety is often overlooked as a mental health problem because it’s not omnipresent. However, if I can make just one person realise that they are not weird or messed up, that simply they experience mild anxiety (or any other extremity of anxiety), so that they feel more self-aware, then I am doing my job here. It’s ridiculous that people feel ashamed of the emotional sensations they feel in certain situations. Anxiety is our body’s natural defence mechanism – think about fight or flight. That response is entirely based on our anxiety. It’s just that when you label something with “anxiety” it suddenly has very negative connotations. So let’s embrace all that. We should be proud that our brains are intelligent enough to have this safety net in place just by human nature. Wow. I love the brain.
Cool. I’m done now. Hope I haven’t rambled too much. Have a nice day!