Sometimes it is hard for those that deal with this thing called a panic attack to help others understand what it is or what it feels like. I never really understood them until about a year ago.
I was on my way to a meeting in a busy downtown. I am usually fine driving in traffic, but this day something entirely new and scary started to happen. As I was driving around the same four blocks over and over trying to find a parking space close enough to the building, I began to realize that the closest spot was not going to be close at all. In fact, I couldn’t find a single space in that four-block area and I started to panic. A flood of thoughts started swirling through my head. “I can’t walk that distance to the meeting.” “I am going to be late and I can’t be late.” “I can’t focus on where I am going and find a place to park.” “Am I in the right area?” I know there were more, but soon they were just a jumble of words. Almost like a moving word search puzzle.
That moment, I felt like I was driving in a car that was filling with mud. I felt trapped. My eyes started to blur from tears and my breathing got shallow. I gripped the steering wheel tighter to try to steady myself and get control of my thoughts and emotions. The more I tried, the more crippling it became. I knew I couldn’t restart my GPS in traffic and finally gave up. I turned onto a side road, pulled into a private parking lot, and put the car in park. It took me a couple minutes to catch my breath. I grabbed my phone and called the organizer of the meeting. There was no way I was going to tell her I couldn’t make the meeting because I was in a parking lot trying to breathe. Instead I told her I was having car issues. The real issue…I couldn’t drive my car back there. That’s all I could bring myself to say. I’m not sure how much time it took me to regain control. When I did, I drove home.
It wasn’t until later that day that I came to terms with what I had experienced, my first panic attack.
It was a feeling of being trapped, out of control and helpless. Physically, my shoulders tensed, and my chest tightened. Nausea and dizziness followed. It seemed that every car was getting closer than they needed to and every person could see that I was struggling. Even the air around me felt like it was squeezing me. Reality was temporarily distorted. Did it feel temporary? Not at all. It felt like I was stuck and had to find a way to survive. I’ve never been so thankful for a side road.
There was a time when I had no idea what panic attacks were or that they could have that big of an impact. That day, I got a major education.
Now what? I had to figure out how to get through them in case it ever happened again. I searched and found a couple things that have helped me when I feel one coming on and if they start.
First, acknowledge what’s happening. Tell yourself, “I’m feel like I am about to have a panic attack” or “I am having a panic attack.” Try to name the reason if you can. Sometimes there are things that happen to flip the panic switch and other times they come out of nowhere.
Second, remind yourself that you’re safe and you can breathe. Take a deep breath. It may feel like you can’t…try anyway. The panic is lying to you.
Next, if you can, move away from the cause or go somewhere you know is a safe place for you. Step outside if you are in a crowded place. Move to a different room or area.
Try to ground yourself. Some people use the see, hear, smell, touch method. Name 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you smell, 1 thing you can touch. This helps remind you where you are and you’re safe. You can even take that a step further and touch or hold on to something very cold. You can even taste something very sour or hot to give your senses a shock. My counselor reminded me of a couple of those last week.
Meditating is also a great grounder since it helps you focus on your breathing. You can download a free app to your phone that can help guide you. I use Breethe.
Allow yourself the time to calm. When we try to rush from the panic and force ourselves to “chill out” it tends to do the opposite. It’s better to take the time to truly calm than “push through”.
These monsters, panic attacks, are scary. They happen to the best of us. They are also temporary.
I’d love to hear what you or a someone you know uses to help them deal with panic attacks.
Leave your tips in the comments.