Panic Attacks 101.

Here are a few things that have thrown me into an ugly panic tornado:

  1. Confronting someone about something I feel passionate about.
  2. When I’m about to text or call someone new in my life.
  3. Calling the pizza guy.
  4. When I’m meeting friends, and have to show up alone.
  5. Waiting for anyone and they are even a tiny bit late.
  6. When I’m misunderstood in regard to my feelings.
  7. When someone disagrees with me.
  8. When I need to present in front of my company and someone asks a follow-up question.
  9. When someone looks at their phone when they’re talking to me.
  10. When I’m laying in bed at night, going over the day’s events.
  11. Recalling an awkward or humiliating event from XX years ago.
  12. When I don’t wear makeup in public.
  13. Shopping alone and everyone is judging me for it.
  14. When someone doesn’t return my text or call or email.
  15. When I do something somewhat embarrassing – like I mispronounce a word.
  16. When I do something really embarrassing – like my skirt flips up in public.
  17. 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.
  18. Making a typo in an email.
  19. When I have no direction when starting a new project (usually work-related).
  20. Doing math.
  21. When I need to talk to an authoritative figure.
  22. When store clerks try to talk to me.
  23. When store clerks ignore me when I need help.
  24. 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.

I cry.

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. giphy
  • 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.
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K thx.

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Background Part II.

This is Part II in my little backstory series.

We left off as I left elementary school, and had just begun Grade 8. Things got sooooo awesome for me, as you can imagine.

Near the end of the school year, I had a relationship-ending fight with my girlfriends. For a 13-year-old, it was traumatic. Looking back, I had it coming. Unfortunately, young teenagers lack foresight. I always acted impulsively and without considering how my actions would be perceived or how they would affect my life.

At this point in my life, I have been very anxious for almost 20 years. So I’m kind of a pro when it comes to handling my anxiety triggers most of the time. I do my box breathing, think about kittens, chew up my fingers, etc. But back when I was a teenager, I did a lot of random hyperventilating and passing out without any discernible trigger to blame. There was a lot of confusion and embarrassment.

panic
Actually.

I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself. I certainly did not link fainting to anxiety. In fact, anxiety wasn’t even a concept I was familiar with. To me, I was just a typical teenaged girl, sitting there legitimately minding my own business in class, very interested in the intricacies of elements, compounds, and solutions, when this random experience hit. I didn’t even think I had some disease. I thought I was just very wimpy.

My mom had me visit a psychologist and I was quickly diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder. They told me the episodes I’d been experiencing were panic attacks. The entire concept didn’t shake me, to be honest. I liked that I was getting some attention I guess, but the label didn’t exactly do much. It was too foreign and I knew too little about disorders. It was the first I had really heard of anything like this. Up until then, my understanding was that there was this thing called depression, and that depression was when you were sad. That sums up my then-understanding of the human mind pretty succinctly.

I did some therapy, but mostly that just confirmed a set of sad facts and occurrences that further confirmed my diagnosis. I can’t say that the therapy really did much for me. I wasn’t really sure how to work on myself, and felt uncomfortable in having to express things in a way my therapist could understand. I didn’t know that therapy is not a magic cure.

My understanding of therapy was that if you were crazy, you’d lie on a sofa and relay whatever jumble of thoughts that come to mind to a doctor. The doctor would write down some notes and that would solve your problems.

Accordingly, my expectations were very misaligned with reality. I found myself sitting uncomfortably across a desk from a frizzy-haired lady who asked me to use children’s alphabet blocks to show my previous and current social rank within my group of friends. I haphazardly stacked three blocks on top of one another and pointed to the top one, indicating that that one was me. Then I moved that block from the top to the bottom.

Then she asked me to draw my picture of what I was feeling. I drew a tear-drop.

I wasn’t sure if the whole thing was supposed to evoke some mind-blowing revelation or something, but I didn’t really see any part of the exercise as being helpful. I already told her how things were using a few words that she coaxed out of me. I concluded that therapy wasn’t fun. It was awkward.

On subsequent visits, I really hadn’t anything to say. There were no updates to provide. I didn’t have the mental capacity to elaborate on any answers I gave, and I didn’t know how to express myself even if I did have something to say.

I had learned that therapy was not a magical tool, but I was too young to understand how to help it help me. I stopped going after only a few sessions.

Severe damage had been done. I had developed a very deep social anxiety disorder. I was horribly self-aware and felt like everyone was judging me at all times. As time went on, I began to hate everything about myself. My shoe size, my frame, my face. The way my hair hung from my head. The sound of my voice. The way I walked. The way I smelled. I hated all of these things because in my mind, I knew that everyone around me noticed and agreed. I believed that no one actually liked me, that perhaps my mom had paid them to spend time with me. This wasn’t like my childhood experiences of other kids literally pointing and laughing at me for whatever reason (i.e. wearing the wrong brand of shorts). This was an overwhelming feeling of being watched and judged constantly, and not favourably.

To this day, I have trouble being seen alone in public. New people, people I need to impress, people I don’t even know – they all trigger an incredible feeling of dread. Am I standing normally? Are people laughing at my hair colour? Am I actually in a reality TV show and everything around me is orchestrated? Am I a joke? It is very difficult for me to believe that honestly, no one fucking cares about 90% of what I’m doing. My pal anxiety just likes to constantly remind me otherwise.

When I started college, things went from manageable to intense in a matter of months.

I began to rely on my best friend far more than anyone should rely on ay 19-year-old girl. I ensured that we’d registered for all of the same university courses, met in the parking lot each morning to walk to class, and spent lunch and study time together.

If I had to go to the mall, I would not go alone. She would be there, too. If we were meeting for dinner or drinks, there is no way I’d get out of my car before she called to tell me she’d also arrived. I would check to see what outfit was acceptable for every occasion.

I essentially assigned myself an anxiety bodyguard.

Maybe it was good in some ways. But I was also not doing myself any favours. You can’t bandaid anxiety – you need to become accustomed to the situations that cause you grief, otherwise you will never become a functioning adult.

But of course I didn’t know that.

The more responsibilities I accumulated, the worse things got for me. School became impossible to drag myself to. Unlike in high school, professors didn’t care if you actually showed up. I began to skip class regularly and dreaded having to return and catch up. I became known for making excuses to my friends about why I was never there. Eventually, I dropped out entirely.

I had decided that it was not only perfectly acceptable, but entirely satisfying to turn my part-time fast food job into a full time career. It was the easiest way out of facing adulthood I could come up with.

I believe that it was around this time that I began taking medication for reals.

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