Here are a few things that have thrown me into an ugly panic tornado:
- Confronting someone about something I feel passionate about.
- When I’m about to text or call someone new in my life.
- Calling the pizza guy.
- When I’m meeting friends, and have to show up alone.
- Waiting for anyone and they are even a tiny bit late.
- When I’m misunderstood in regard to my feelings.
- When someone disagrees with me.
- When I need to present in front of my company and someone asks a follow-up question.
- When someone looks at their phone when they’re talking to me.
- When I’m laying in bed at night, going over the day’s events.
- Recalling an awkward or humiliating event from XX years ago.
- When I don’t wear makeup in public.
- Shopping alone and everyone is judging me for it.
- When someone doesn’t return my text or call or email.
- When I do something somewhat embarrassing – like I mispronounce a word.
- When I do something really embarrassing – like my skirt flips up in public.
- When I think that maybe the facial expression I have had while talking to someone is really ugly or not appropriate and now I need to change my facial expression, but I am not sure how my face is supposed to look.
- Making a typo in an email.
- When I have no direction when starting a new project (usually work-related).
- Doing math.
- When I need to talk to an authoritative figure.
- When store clerks try to talk to me.
- When store clerks ignore me when I need help.
- When my alarm goes off and I have to go to work.
There may or may not be other triggers (read: there are definitely other triggers).
I’d say the worst trigger is, well, not a trigger at all. It’s when I’m just hanging out and anxiety creeps in like a shadow.
What is it like for me?
Before I know it, I can feel my chest tightening, and I get a sick feeling in the back of my throat. I start to look for ways out – physical exits. I need privacy and I need to get away from wherever I am. Immediately.
It may or may not turn into a full blown attack. If I am somehow able to get myself under control, then it basically ends there. I still feel that feeling of dread and tightness in my chest, but it doesn’t escalate.
If it does, though, things get really yucky.
My breathing quickens. I may begin to hyperventilate. I break into a cold sweat. My senses dull. I can’t hear properly, and I can’t see properly. Sometimes I get tunnel vision and I begin to black out.
That might be one of the worst symptoms, because you can’t hide tears when you’re in public. And drawing attention when you just want to disappear just makes everything worse.
Not just the feelings, but the anxiety attack itself. It is immediately amplified if I know that people I don’t know or trust can see it happening.
I mean, that’s one of my real triggers – being judged by people. So when I am literally in my most vulnerable state, and people are watching me, things are officially over for me.
I’ve passed out in big crowds because of this. Sometimes I feel like my response is to pass out because then people won’t know it’s a panic attack, and might instead suspect it’s a medical emergency of some sort.
People don’t understand invisible illness, of course. It’s only natural that humans believe that people around them should be experiencing and reacting to situations the same way they are. I don’t even blame them.
I have a wish list when it comes to other people who witness someone having a panic attack:
- If you know the person, be there for them. Ask them before assuming they need something. Bring the person a glass of water, a tissue. Depending on your relationship, give them a hug, rub their back, or hold their hand. Say nice things. If the person doesn’t want you there, they will tell you.
- If you do not know the person, but they are alone, offer your support. It would get weird if you started stroking their hair, but you can help them not feel so stressed and awkward. See if you can move them to a more private place. Empathize if you can. Don’t overstay your welcome.
- If you’re uncomfortable (we get it), don’t watch the person like they’re a side-show. Have some respect. Move your group elsewhere if you can, don’t talk about the person or ask them stupid questions. I’ve seen randos looking at me with this disgusted, judgy face. Exercise a little restraint.
- Don’t tell the person to calm down. Fuck off.
- Do remind them that this will pass. It’s temporary.
- Breathe with them. Help them to catch that rhythm with you. You may not be aware of anxiety-expert-approved breathing exercises, but you can certainly figure out something. A friend of mine once said “let’s do pregnancy breathing!” It was the best thing she could come up with, and it helped a lot.
- Above all, just be accepting of what’s happening, and convey that. If you think it’s going on longer than you thing it should, keep your mouth shut. They’re already overwhelmed and very self-aware, and making them feel like they’re abnormal or that you don’t approve is going to ruin any progress they’ve made.
- Follow up. If you’re pals, send a text, stop by their office, or give them a call that night. I’ve had friends send me funny memes the next day to show their support. A simple “how are you doing?” can mean the world to someone. If they get sketchy and embarrassed, just smile and leave it at that. They know.