If you ever had a panic attack, you know what a scary and horrible experience it is. If you don’t, well think back to the worse news you have ever gotten; the warm rush that goes through your body, your breathing becomes uncontrollable, and the hundreds of thoughts that go through your mind and you wonder; ‘How am I going to survive?’ That’s what a panic attack sorta feels like, but worse. You are desperately trying to grasp why you are feeling this way, but you fail to find a reason, and suddenly it hits you ‘I’m going to die.’
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My first panic attack experience
I was 13 years old, It was Queensday in the Netherlands, and we were celebrating in Amsterdam. If you never visited Amsterdam during Queensday (now Kingsday), imagine a city full of half-drunk people, music everywhere and you have to push your way through to get anywhere. Suddenly I felt faint, and I told my dad I wanted to go home, but he said I should man up and keep going. My fingers became numb, my breathing became uneven, and my heart was beating out of my chest. I started to cry and begged my dad to go home, but before I could convince him, I fell to the ground cause my legs would no longer carry me. My entire body was tingling, my vision blurred and I knew I was going to die, or so I thought.
It took my dad and bystanders an hour to calm me down and convince me I had a panic attack, before that day I never even heard the word panic or anxiety attack before. After this experience, my body was drained of energy for days, and unfortunately, it was the start of a panic disorder.
Panic attacks are different for everyone, but we all have one thing in common. Once you experienced a panic attack, you never want to experience one again, and this is where the problems began. After my first anxiety experience, I became so scared of a new attack that I started to avoid situations with a lot of people. I stopped going to parties and later I even avoided school.
I later was diagnosed with a panic disorder, which is an anxiety disorder characterized by reoccurring panic attacks. These attacks often happen in similar situations, but can later expand to a wide variety of situations. Symptoms include, but are not limited to;
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling of fainting
- The feeling that something horrible is going to happen
- Chest pain
- Dry throat and/or problems swallowing
- Not being able to move or not being able to stand still.
How to deal with panic attacks
The more you try to control a panic attack, the worse it gets. If you tell yourself ‘Don’t get a panic attack’ You can be sure that you will get one. So what else can you do?
First, you need to know that a panic attack won’t kill you, I know it sure as hell does feel like you are going to die, but you won’t. I had at least 2000 panic attacks in my life (I swear, not exaggerated), but I’m still alive. I will share some tips that I use for dealing with panic attacks and anxiety in general.
- Instead of focussing on NOT getting an attack, focus on how you are going to deal with it. As I mentioned before, Focussing on not getting an attack will only make things worse. Tell yourself that anxiety is a feeling and feelings won’t last forever. Think about the good feelings and how you like them to stay, but you can’t, cause even good feelings disappear.
- Learn to distract yourself. Ok, so you are experiencing a panic attack, now what? You are not going to die, so do something that calms you down. Panic attacks feel like they come out of nowhere, but they don’t. Keep a journal and try to figure out the symptoms before a panic attack. Next time you feel those symptoms, start distracting yourself. I learned that doing something active works better than doing something passive. I like to sit on the couch and watch tv, but it’s not enough to distract me. Coloring, writing or doing a Sudoku work better for me, but you have to figure out what works for you.
- Figure out what emotions hide behind the anxiety. This is something you have to practice; it requires a certain honesty towards yourself. Ask yourself: Am I sad about something? Is there something bothering me? Bottling up feelings can make you feel very anxious, resulting in a panic attack. If you realize that there is another emotion hidden behind the anxiety you have to do something with that emotion. Have a good cry, write something about it or have an open talk with a friend.
- Use a mantra. Tell yourself something comforting – ‘This will pass,’ ‘I’m strong enough to handle this’ or as I do: I sing ‘Let it go‘ either in my head or out loud.
- Make a mental health crisis list. Having a plan can help you feel safer. Make a list of everything you can do when you experience a panic attack or symptoms of anxiety. For example – ‘When I start feeling anxious I will color something’ or ‘When I have a panic attack, I will call a friend.’ You can also include what you want to happen when things become out of your control in case you need to be admitted to a hospital or a psych ward. Download your own crisis list.
- Use mindfulness to get out of your head. Panic attacks are often caused by excessive worrying. It can help to get out of your head, back into your body by using mindfulness techniques.
- Run the adrenaline out of your body. By moving you can help speed up the process of getting the excessive adrenaline out of your body. I mostly do some yoga poses, or I keep pacing. You can also go for a run or do squats.
There is a lot you can do to deal with panic attacks, but in the end, it all comes down to one thing; Acceptance. If you can accept that you feel anxious sometimes and it can result in a panic attack, then it will no longer control you.
Acceptance is hard. You don’t want to deal with panic attacks, but you are given no choice. You can, however, choose to accept it.
- Anxiety is a part of you, but it does not define you. You are not weak for experiencing anxiety and/or panic attacks.
- It’s a life experience. Not one you want, but hey! Not your choice. Experiencing anxiety has made me empathize with others more, it has taught me how I can support and comfort others, and it has made me grateful for all days without anxiety.
- Life is what you get and what you decide to make of it. It’s ok to feel sorry for yourself. Life is unfair, but at one point you have to decide that it is what it is; You have panic attacks, but you survive every time. Decide that you want to cope with your anxiety. Tell yourself that it’s ok to experience anxiety and it doesn’t have to go away. Let the anxiety be there but don’t let it control you.
Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t accept it right away. It took me many years to fully accept my panic attacks and sometimes I’m still feeling sorry for myself and cursing at the world for everything that happened. Accepting my panic attacks has taught me that I can just let them be there; I know they will go away again, so instead of fighting I accept that it’s there and it can’t hurt me. My panic attacks aren’t as bad anymore and if I have one I acknowledge it and go on with my day.
Why do I get panic attacks?
There are plenty of reasons why you get panic attacks;
- Anxiety disorder
- physical illness
- Not enough sleep
- Drugs and alcohol use
- Caffeine use and unhealthy eating
- bottling up emotions
If you are familiar with panic attacks, you should be careful with alcohol, drugs, and caffeine. They can make anxiety worse and even cause a panic attack.
You have to find out what triggers your panic attacks and anxiety. For me it’s mostly stress, bottling up emotions, unhealthy foods, mental and physical illness. I found out that I have a severe fructose intolerance that worsens my mental health. For many years I had heart palpitations, extreme stomach problems, low blood sugar and depression and anxiety caused by eating fructose. Since I’m on a diet, I feel so much better, and if I experience anxiety now, I know where it’s coming from.
Looking for help
If you experience anxiety and/or panic attacks, it’s wise to see your general practitioner. He can decide if you need a medical checkup or help you find a therapist. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you brave and strong that you can admit that you can’t do it alone. The sooner you get help, the better. With anxiety, it often gets worse if you let it be, you will start to avoid more and more, and before you know it your world is so small and it becomes harder to heal.