Panic Disorder-Set it off

It strikes me with the finality

Of the hands of a clock,

My heart skips fervent beats-

Throat tightens; I choke on my words

The weight of entire world is on my shoulders,

Knees buckled, inside I am screaming

There’s nothing romantic

About being afraid of a handful of dust.

Bouts of fear permeate my thoughts,

They paralyze me; every movement is impossible

Nobody hears me, and I’m all alone.

Standing at the edge of an abyss

Staring at it, until the wind tips me off;

My mind is helpless, all rationality gone

Anxiety eats me away like a child devouring a cake.

And I’m trapped here forever

Desperately holding on

To scraps of sanity.

Imagine the big bad wolf coming to eat your grandmother. What you feel now, is fear. How your body reacts to the situation, is anxiety. Simply put, fear is an emotional response to a dreadful circumstance whereas anxiety is a physiological response to the same. Anxiety is a remarkable motivator, and frankly, life would be a bit boring without it. 

Our body has a mechanism to deal with situations like this, it’s either fight or flight. Adrenaline, a hormone notorious for causing numerous unpleasant physical and emotional sensations, is our fire alarm.

This fire alarm mechanism worked wonders for our cave-dwelling ancestors, but our idea of an intimidating situation has changed over the years, unlike our body’s coping mechanism. We no longer need to literally run away from things that terrify us. 

“It feels like missing a step as you’re walking down the stairs in the dark. Your stomach lurches into your throat, your breath stops, and your heart beats faster. You can feel yourself falling. Except that next step never comes, it’s just a complete free-fall.’’

A panic attack is a situation when our fire alarm goes bonkers. It’s a prolonged exaggeration of the body’s normal response to stress and fear, characterized by various symptoms like excessive sweating, breathlessness, nausea to even a heightened sense of depersonalization.

People whose fire alarms set off for the slightest whiff of smoke are those who are diagnosed with the panic disorder. Frequent panic attacks, accompanied by the constant gripping fear of experiencing another “episode” are its usual traits. This can also be accompanied by agoraphobia, where the individual avoids places or situations where he/she may feel trapped 

“When I have an attack I feel like my brain has left my body, the two just won’t connect. I feel like I’m floating and then, the stuttering starts. I just can’t get a coherent sentence out. My brain goes into a mode where a million panicky thoughts plague it. God, these are the worst. “

One of the most disturbing aspects of suffering from this disorder is the sheer unpredictability of the attack, thereby making it seem virtually uncontrollable.

“It’s hearing the world as if you’re underneath it, buried alive, with the sound of your breathing drowning out the sounds around you.”

 But what people suffering from this could really use is knowing they’re not on their own in this struggle. It’s okay to not be okay.  It’s okay to talk about what you’re facing. It doesn’t make you weak, inferior or vulnerable. On the contrary, it makes you self-aware and resilient. Stigma is the enemy, not anxiety. 

If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you can probably empathize with the frustration and helplessness. By educating yourself about panic attacks, you can begin to gain control of the problem. Fear and uncertainty will no longer take control of your life. The biggest obstacle is acknowledging and accepting that it is going to happen and no matter how petrifying it is, it’s a temporary feeling. 

To start tackling the problem, the most important thing you do is to talk to a professional. Your doctor would be able to distinguish between frequent panic attacks and a panic disorder. He can also determine if your episodes are triggered by an underlying ailment. 

The next step is to understand how your body works during these episodes. This can help you have a healthier response to these daunting situations. Although symptoms can be innumerable, common reactions include these:

  • Your body goes into overdrive.
  • Pupils dilate. 
  • Your mind can’t escape fearful thoughts.
  • Heart rate quickens.
  • Your muscles tense.
  • Your breathing becomes rapid.

All these symptoms would snowball until your body thinks balance is restored.

If you feel a panic attack coming on, various breathing and relaxation techniques can help you gain control of your body. Exercises like walking, stretching and yoga is strongly recommended. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking. Although you wouldn’t want to relive the attack, writing about how you felt and what tipped you off is essential. Also, come up with a thought that could calm you instantly and use it when you anticipate an attack coming your way.

All you have to do now is remember it’s just anxiety and not reality. It’s not the situation but the thought that scares you. A little bit of reverse psychology can work wonders. Avoidance feeds panic. Confronting your fears is a big step in defeating anxiety.

As upsetting as it can be, once you learn how to stand up to a panic attack, you’ll discover newfound freedom and empowerment- a window to millions of possibilities. I’m reminded of a certain Elvis Presley song at the moment:

“When you walk through a storm hold your head up high

And don’t be afraid of the dark.

At the end of a storm is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Tho’ your dreams be tossed and blown.

Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart

And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never, ever walk alone.”

How can you help someone out during a panic attack?

  • Remain calm.
  • Don’t underplay the attack.
  • Don’t panic and freak yourself out. It would just tip them off more. They’re vulnerable and you need to be supportive.
  • Don’t be forceful. Let them handle it at their own pace.
  • Don’t ever display any sort of disappointment or annoyance on your face. This will only demotivate and embarrass them further. Remember, they didn’t choose it to be this way. If you can’t be supportive, you shouldn’t be demeaning either.
  • In the course of a panic attack, don’t say anything that resembles-

“Dude, chill. You’re worrying too much. You’re being silly. What’s wrong with you? Don’t be a coward.”

Instead, say something along these lines:

“It’s alright, I get you. You’re not alone. You’re extremely courageous. Inhale. Exhale. Go to your happy place. It’s all going to be fine. This too shall pass. I’ll be there for you.”

  • After a panic attack, the person might feel depressed, manic, exhausted, sad, angry or insecure. It’s your job to make them feel better. Be genuine, though. Help out of compassion, not pity.

Srikriti Dahagam for MTTN

PS. This article is the second in the series of articles for the week we have earmarked as Mental Health Awareness Week. Stay tuned! Press here to read our first article of the series.

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