Editor’s note: The information in this post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
I am walking through the park when it hits me: a wave of warmth. A wash of terror. A flood of agitation, apprehension, discomfort, and unease.
I try to ignore it — I am with my 4-year-old daughter, and I don’t have time to sit down and take it all in. I don’t have time for a meltdown.
But even still, I know it is coming.
I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, and in my chest, where it tenses and tightens. So I do the only thing I can think to do: I tell my daughter to go play on the playground while I park myself on a bench. While I try to catch my breath.
In and out. In and out. In and out.
I tell myself to focus. To be. To breathe. But my efforts are futile. The more I try to calm myself, the harder it becomes.
This is what it’s often like when you live a panic disorder — these frenzied moments of terror are sudden and unpredictable; random and overwhelming.
The air becomes thick and heavy, and it feels like I am suffocating. Like I am drowning. Like there’s an elephant sitting on my chest, and I can’t get out from under him.
Of course, panic attacks aren’t the same for everyone. For some, I’ve heard there is dizziness and numbness. Some experience feelings of flushness and/or chills. Others say they’re consumed by an overwhelming sense of terror. By intense fear and an impending sense of doom.
For Christine Burke — a writer, editor, and mother of two from Pennsylvania — there’s often more to it than that.
“I feel lightheaded and a sense of dread envelops my chest,” she tells Babble. “I feel like I’m in physical danger, even though I can see that I’m not and … [my instinct is] to run and flail because the fear is that real.”
Burke’s symptoms are both powerful and paralyzing — something Lourdes De Jesus Sambucci knows well, too.
“When I get a panic attack I have to immediately lay down [because] I feel like my heart will fall out of my chest,” the mother of three shares.
According to Todd Farchione, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, this reaction is very normal — at least for someone struggling with anxiety and/or a panic disorder.
“When someone suffers from one of these disorders,” Farchione says, “it’s completely debilitating, partly just because people recognize that what they’re experiencing is irrational, but they’ve learned to respond in a certain way in those situations so it’s a natural response to those experiences. It can be frightening.”
And it is made all the more frightening when you have an attack in the presence of a child — a little human being who is completely dependent upon you. Whenever I feel my own anxiety rising within me, I immediately do whatever I can to minimize the impact on my daughter.
Right now, that’s a little easier, because she’s only 4. So we sit down, we turn on the TV, and I start to breathe deeply as she watches her shows, unaware of my internal panic.
It may feel like I’m all alone in this sometimes, but the truth is, I’m far from it. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, nearly 6 million adults, or 2.7% of the U.S. population, are affected by panic disorders — and women are twice as likely to be affected as men.
The good news is, there are many different methods of treatment. For me, it takes running, meditation, and a dose of my prescribed medication to calm me down. To walk me back from “the edge”, as I call it. But everyone has their own unique coping strategy.
Mike Cruse, the dad of two and writer behind the blog Papa Does Preach, waits it out.
“Sometimes I need space and quiet,” he tells Babble. “Other times I need to be held tightly and comforted. And sometimes I take really hot showers. They seem to bring me back fast.”
Burke, on the other hand, uses tangible things to ground her.
“What [helps me] most is my husband’s hand,” she shares. “I squeeze his hand every time the panic threaten[s] to overcome me and he squeezes back. It is a physical reminder that I’m not alone.”
Brenay Brock, a mother of two from Virginia, plays the 54321 game.
“Using the five senses, I find five things I can see, four things I can touch, three things I can hear, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste,” she says. “This usually settles me down. It also works well with my oldest and other friends when I have had them do it during an anxiety attack.”
And when Susanne Kerns has a panic attack, she heads outdoors.
“I have a hard time sitting down [so I take a] ‘walkabout’ so my body and brain are on the same page,” she says, though she notes this is sometimes not enough. “When I’m in the midst of a full-fledged panic attack,” she continues, “almost nothing helps.”
As for me, sometimes my only coping strategy is to sit with the fear.
To see it through.
And believe me, that’s hard. But what keeps me going is knowing that I’ve been here before. I have lived through panic attacks before, and this one will be no different. I will come out on the other side.
Today, that fact is enough. I am enough.
And I hope if you ever find yourself in the same shoes, you can find it in yourself to know that you are enough, too.