“Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination.” ~ Christian Nestell Bovee
I’ve realised lately that although I’ve been having them for at least two years now a lot of people still don’t really understand what it is that I mean when I say that I’ve had a panic attack. And since having panic attacks is a considerable proportion of what I’ve been doing lately I thought that I’d explain it here.
I’m not sure that everyone will experience panic attacks in this way. I have a friend who experiences panic attacks about as often as I do, but speaking to her about it her’s sound like they feel completely different to mine. But anyway…
My panic attacks usually start off relatively gradually, I start off just feeling generally anxious and a bit jumpy, but, depending on how successful I am at trying to keep control of it this either eventually or quickly escalates and I become increasingly agitated. My startle response to movements and noises in my vicinity becomes more pronounced and my perception is heightened, so that I’ll eventually react to even the slightest thing.
I basically just get more and more scared. Usually of nothing.
The panic attacks are supposedly part of my CPTSD so you’d expect that they’d usually be triggered by something but they’re seemingly becoming disconnected to anything external to my own brain. Either that or whatever’s triggering me has become so far removed from the things that originally created the trauma that I’m struggling to recognise them anymore.
My breathing gets quicker and quicker and my heart starts to pump faster and faster. The thoughts going through my brain become less and less rational or even coherent.
If at the time I’m pretty much anywhere other than my own living room I become convinced that where ever I am is unsafe and that I need to immediately get away from there to somewhere that is safe. Safe and away from other people.
As my heart and lungs continue to work too quickly while I struggle to get my breath my chest begins to hurt. Like, really, really hurt. This is why people often describe panic attacks as feeling as though they’re going to have a heart attack.
Apparently there’s no real medical explanation for this based on what’s actually happening to you.
After the hyperventilation has been going on for a while, and I’ve eventually stopped being able to actually communicate with anyone because it’s too difficult to get my words out while gasping for air at the same time, parts of my body start to go into spasm. This starts with my hands involuntarily curling up into claws that I then struggle to, and eventually can’t, open up again.
As if I wasn’t freaking out enough already.
The pain along with the inability to speak or use my hands obviously feeds into my panic and fear. So it becomes even harder to breathe properly or think clearly. My mind is usually pretty much a fog by this point anyway.
After my hands have stopped working my arms start to go into spasm and curl in as well; which is also painful.
Next I start feeling all light-headed and woozy. It’s sort of a little bit like being drunk, only not really, but that’s the nearest thing I can think of to describe it to.
And remember, all the while my heart’s still racing along at two hundred miles an hour and I’m hyperventilating like someone who’s just had to run the distance of a marathon while in fear for their life.
And my chest pain is getting worse, and the pain in my hands is getting worse, and then the spasms in my arms start to make those hurt as well. Then my legs go numb so they don’t work either.
My doctor friend tells me that the spasms are caused by there being too much cardon dioxide in my body because I’m not breathing properly.
If this happens to me when I’m on my own I start genuinely believing that I’m going to pass out, or die, or that something else that’s terrible for my physical health is going to happen. Now that I’m not living on my own anymore I at least sometimes have somebody there who knows about medical stuff and so just sits and looks bored; and tells me that nothing is happening to me that I need to worry about because if it was they’d be doing something about it. And trys a bit to straighten out my fingers.
There doesn’t usually seem to be anything that can stop my panic attacks once they’re fully up and running, I just have to wait for them to subside and go away again. Sometimes there’s a chance they might subside more quickly if someone is able to distract me by talking about something else entirely, but this has happened rarely.
There’s almost no rhyme or reason to their duration either. Sometimes they can go away as quickly as they came and be over in as little as twenty minutes, on other occasions they might last for hours. Last month I managed to travel half way across the country without the panic attack that had prompted the journey – I’d had a sudden, desperate need to go home – even beginning to get any better.
Once a panic attack is over I might be fine for the rest of the day – apart from the pain, that usually lasts for at least a couple of days – or I might spend the next week repeating the experience at frequent intervals.
It’s all terribly inconvenient; especially when I’m busy trying to do things like go to the Sainsburys up the road and buy milk, or be at a friend’s wedding, or get ready for my appointment at the Chinese consulate.
The appointment at the Chinese consulate was to pick up my visa for the job that I was supposed to fly out to take up two weeks ago. I didn’t make it to the appointment, and I still haven’t collected my passport because I’m unable to go now. The frequency with which I’ve experienced crippling attacks over the last few weeks has been too great for me to be able to risk starting a new job half way around the world from almost anyone I know in a country that doesn’t really ‘do’ mental health care. Especially a job that would have made me responsible for groups of small children.
And my friend is only going to get married once, and I missed it because I freaked out and ran away. Something I feel terrible about.
This particular aspect of my condition makes me feel ridiculous. Other people manage to get through their day perfectly well without freaking themselves out and making themselves ill about nothing. I feel like I should be able to as well. Apparently the fact that I tell people about them now is at least a sign of progress.
But there you go, anyway, that’s what a panic attack feels like. It just sucks basically.