In December 2019, I experienced my first panic attack. Hindsight is 2020, right? Reviewing the last two years, I was getting a bit ahead of myself. Anxiety is good at that. It’s like my body and mind were already aware of the pandemic that would upturn the world just a few months later and responded accordingly.
My only frame of reference at the time for panic attacks was a movie called “Win it All” starring Jake Johnson and directed by Joe Swanberg. In a climactic scene, Johnson’s character suffers a panic attack. Several years later, when I had one, I thought back to that scene. The movie accurately captured how debilitating and terrifying they are.
More recently, I watched “Ted Lasso.” There’s an episode where Ted has a panic attack, and once again, I thought yes, that’s what it felt like for me. They’re scary and confusing. From the way she recognizes what Ted is experiencing and helps him through it, I think the show’s writers are nodding to the fact that Ted’s boss, Rebecca, has likely also experienced a panic attack.
Panic attacks and anxiety surface again in Irish comedian Aisling Bea’s show “This Way Up,” Both Aisling’s character, Aine, and Aine’s sister, Shona, experience anxiety and panic attacks.
Somehow, seeing anxiety and depression on TV makes me feel less alone.
Even though these shows bring up mental health, neither the shows nor the characters are defined by their panic attacks, anxiety, or depression — just like I never wanted to be defined by mine, even when it felt like it was calling all the shots.
Have you ever had a panic attack? I don’t wish one on you, ever.
The first time it happened, I wondered if I was having a heart attack.
Because I’d never seen an ad or poster about panic attacks, but have seen plenty depicting the warning signs of a heart attack, I thought the latter was happening to me.
When it happens, it’s normal to get even more panicked because you’re not sure what’s happening. No one has ever told you about this feeling before. You’ve only heard people say things like “you gave me a panic attack.” Now that you’ve had one, you think they were using the term hyperbolically.
When it’s happening, your throat tightens and it feels hard to breathe. Your chest may feel tight. Your heart beats very fast. Your hands may start to tingle. Your thoughts feel like they’re moving a million miles a minute, like you’re on a rollercoaster that never slows down, but only continues to build speed. You feel like you’re coming undone.
At this point, if you can, call a loved one who will remind you to take deep breaths. They’ll ask you if you’re okay. If you’re like me, you’ll say you don’t know, because you don’t. It could be all in your head, but it feels physical. It feels like something is breaking in your body. You try to wait it out, but you can’t sit still. You tell them you feel like you might be having heart issues. They ask if you want to go to the hospital.
After trying to put it off, you say yes. You feel terrified as your loved one drives you there. Will we make it in time? In time for whatever is happening not to kill me?
You get to the emergency room and they ask you what you’re experiencing. You tell them your chest feels tight and it feels hard to breathe. They admit you to the ER, take you to a bed behind a curtain, and start running tests. They ask you your pain level. “Maybe a 3?” you tell them. You’re not in pain, but in panic, only you don’t know how to describe it at the time.
They take an EKG and X-rays to rule out a cardiac incident or blood clots.
The kind nurse tells you you’re too young to be having a heart attack. I agree, you think.
Your wonderful partner sits with you and you wait together. You already feel better, more relaxed, being in this space, knowing the test will tell you what’s happening to your body.
Eventually, the doctor comes back and tells you all the tests came back clear of cardiac incidents and blood clots. The doctor asks if you ever experience heartburn. “Umm, I guess so, sometimes,” you tell her. She says she’ll write you a prescription for heartburn medication.
You know what you experienced wasn’t heartburn, but you also don’t know what else it could be.
You get a referral to a doctor who wants to get to the root of what you’re going through. She assures you that what you’re experiencing is normal and that it sounds like a panic attack. Yes, it’s reasonable that they could be induced by exercise, she reassures you. It’s reasonable that your morning runs that normally calm you suddenly induce that same panic, the fast-beating heart and racing mind.
Because exercise causes your blood cortisol levels to rise in the short term, it may trigger your panic attacks — as can caffeine, alcohol, and sugar (of course it’s all the best things). You start to cut these things out of your life. You try acupuncture, meditation, and breathing exercises. They help, but you’re still having panic attacks almost every day.
You start seeing a counselor who helps you discover that it’s work that’s triggering your panic attacks. You start to notice how your heart rate creeps and your breathing shallows when you drive to work. For a while, being at home is one of the only places you feel like you can exist without panic.
At one point, you have a panic attack in your counselor’s office. Your kind counselor calls the paramedics for you, who are also kind and help assure you it’s a panic attack. Your husband runs 10 blocks from his workplace to meet you. He comforts you and you go home together. You watch “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — not a calming movie but you feel weirdly calm. You connect the dots when you hear Sharon Tate’s name and have a sense of where the story is headed. Your husband makes you an egg sandwich. You feel better.
After spending an hour one afternoon huddled in your work breakroom, trying to quell a panic attack, you talk to your supervisor and tell them you might need to go home sometimes if you feel a panic attack coming. They are kind and supportive.
And because you have an incredible, supportive husband, friends, and community who assure you it’s okay, because you are privileged to have savings and people who can help, you eventually (after too many months of trying to talk yourself out of it) leave your job. You start your own freelance business which allows you to work from home and have a more relaxed schedule.
Strangely, while the pandemic brings new and different fears, being at home all the time gives you more control and calm in your life.
Your anxiety isn’t gone. But you can manage it and no longer have daily panic attacks. Like a good friend shared, once your body knows it can respond in that way, it’s like the option to panic is always there, just below the surface. Like a roommate who’s not leaving. You still (mostly) avoid caffeine and too much sugar and alcohol, and you feel pretty good.
At least, this is what it’s been like for me. I know there will be a million different experiences than my own, but I hope this helps you feel less alone in yours.
I hope you never experience a panic attack. But if you do, I hope you have resources and support and love around you that remind you this experience is temporary. I hope you have people in your life that make it softer to come back down from the rollercoaster ride of panic. And I hope most of all that you are in a position to leave the toxic job, partner, or situation that is causing your panic attacks.
May is mental health awareness month