(Trigger Warning: Discussion about panic attacks and emotional trauma.)
It happened again. I got triggered and the result was a bad panic attack. Actually, I would say all panic attacks are bad. The reason I say this last one was particularly bad is because of where I was at the time and who I was with. I was in public with my family at a festival/carnival in a town that I did not live in. I had no safe place to go, but I knew I had to get out of there, so I told my family I was going to take a moment and I just started walking fast away from everything. I just kept walking and walking.
I probably would have ended up in the hills outside of town if I hadn’t set myself down in a secluded spot away from people and the commotion of what was going on in town. I set myself down, because I could still think semi-rationally. I realized I had the keys to our van, so I couldn’t just keep walking. I also realized that the panic attack was winning. I couldn’t stop it. I knew that I needed to stop to just let myself cry, so that is what I did. I sat down in the grass with my back to the world and just let the panic attack over take me.
The panic attack didn’t just happen out of nothing. There was a very specific reason for it. It wasn’t the environment that triggered the panic attack. I was actually having a fun time with my family exploring the various wares on display at the different tables. My son had just gone on a carnival ride with his friend and my daughter had just finished a snow cone. We were laughing, enjoying our family outing. We were just getting ready to get something to eat when she showed up with no warning.
I don’t know why this person who triggered me felt she needed to come up to my family and me. She had been told to keep a respectful distance from us some time ago. She claimed it was the polite thing to do to come up to us. In most cases, when you see someone you know, it is considered polite to come up and say “hi”, but in this particular case it was just thoughtless and disrespectful behavior on her part. She won’t see this, but I want to say to her, “Stay away from me and my family! Stay away from my husband! Leave us alone so we can heal!”
I have no idea if she is even aware of the amount of psychological and emotional damage that she contributed to. She was the first to contribute to three years of hell for myself and my family. I have Complex-PTSD and those three years of pain only added to the layers of trauma that I had already acquired.
My panic attack yesterday left me feeling in a way that I am having trouble describing. Drained, depressed, embarrassed, still full of anxiety, sick to my stomach, headachy, dizzy, fearful, teary-eyed, emotionally sensitive, brain-fog, internally numb, out-of-control, remorseful, disconnected, disassociated, the list goes on.
“A panic attack typically lasts several long minutes and is one of the most distressing conditions a person can experience. In some cases, panic attacks have been known to last for longer periods of time or to recur very quickly over and over again.
The aftermath of a panic attack is very painful. Feelings of depression and helplessness are usually experienced. The greatest fear is that the panic attack will come back again and again, making life too miserable to bear.
Panic is not necessarily brought on by a recognizable circumstance, and it may remain a mystery to the person involved. These attacks come “out of the blue”. At other times, excessive stress or other negative life conditions can trigger an attack.”
- rapid heart rate
- shortness of breath
- hot flashes
- abdominal cramping
- chest pain
- tightness in your throat
- trouble swallowing
- sense of impending death
- tingling in your hands or feet
“A panic attack takes a very powerful emotional toll on the person affected. In addition to the overwhelming sense of fear in that is its primary symptom, the person can also be subject to more tangible symptoms associated with the fear of physical loss of control, perceived heart attack or even possible death. The realness, immediacy and overwhelming intensity of her feelings during these moments of helplessness and desperation cannot be overemphasized.”
For me, when a panic attack is triggered, it stems from prolonged emotional trauma. We need to remember that stress can trigger a panic attack. You do not have to have endured an emotional trauma to experience a panic attack. We also need to realize that trauma is stress that has run amuck. There is a difference between routine stress and emotional and psychological trauma.
“Stress dis-regulates our nervous systems – but for only a relatively short period of time. Within a few days or weeks, our nervous systems calm down and we revert to a normal state of equilibrium. This return to normalcy is not the case when we have been traumatized. One way to tell the difference between stress and emotional trauma is by looking at the outcome – how much residual effect an upsetting event is having on our lives, relationships, and overall functioning. Traumatic distress can be distinguished from routine stress by assessing the following:
- how quickly upset is triggered
- how frequently upset is triggered
- how intensely threatening the source of upset is
- how long upset lasts
- how long it takes to calm down
If we can communicate our distress to people who care about us and can respond adequately, and if we return to a state of equilibrium following a stressful event, we are in the realm of stress. If we become frozen in a state of active emotional intensity, we are experiencing an emotional trauma – even though sometimes we may not be consciously aware of the level of distress we are experiencing.”
How do you deal with all of this, how do you cope? First thing to remember when experiencing a panic attack is that you will survive even though it may feel like the world is ending, you can’t breathe, and your chest feels like it is going to explode. Anxiety BC put together helpful strategies to help you get through a panic attack. The tool box starts on page three and these strategies are also helpful for people who are witnessing another person having a panic attack.
Some of the strategies that Anxiety BC listed that I often use include:
1. Calm Breathing: This is a strategy that you can use to help reduce some of the physical symptoms experienced during a panic attack. We tend to breathe faster when we are anxious, which can make us feel dizzy and lightheaded, which in turn can make us even more anxious. Calm breathing involves taking slow, regular breaths through your nose. However, it is important to realize that the goal of calm breathing is not to stop a panic attack because it’s dangerous, but to make it a little easier to “ride out” the feelings.
For more information, see How to do Calm Breathing.
KEY POINT: If you are using relaxation to help you STOP a panic attack, this is NOT helpful. If you are using relaxation to help you turn down the volume on the feelings (but not avoid them) this IS helpful!
2. Muscle Relaxation: Another helpful strategy involves learning to relax your body. This technique involves tensing various muscles and then relaxing them, to help lower overall tension and stress levels, which can contribute to panic attacks.
For more information, see How To Do Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
Things you should NOT say or do while a person is experiencing a panic attack:
- tell them to calm down.
- get angry with them.
- yell at them.
- tell them to get over it.
- tell them they are being ridiculous.
- freak out.
Things you SHOULD say or do while a person is experiencing a panic attack:
- Tell them they are safe. Repeatedly.
- Tell them you are there for them.
- Tell them they are not alone.
- Remind them to breathe.
- Take deep breaths with them.
- Listen to what they need. Offer choices if they can’t tell you what they need.
- Hold them if they need you too. Keep a respectful distance if they don’t.
The rate a person recovers from a panic attack, or trauma for that matter, really matters on those around them. Don’t try to put the person back into the fire if they have just calmed down. There is an aftermath of a panic attack that has to be gone through. Putting a person right back into a situation that triggered them in the first place will most likely just trigger another panic attack. Healing takes time and it is different for everyone. Understanding and patience are necessary in this situation.
According to Ellen McGrath in Recovering from Trauma,
“Not everyone who endures a traumatic experience is scarred by it; the human psyche has a tremendous capacity for recovery and even growth. Recovering from a traumatic experience requires that the painful emotions be thoroughly processed. Trauma feelings can not be repressed or forgotten. If they are not dealt with directly, the distressing feelings and troubling events replay over and over in the course of a lifetime, creating a condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Whatever inner resources people need to mobilize for recovery, they still can not accomplish the task alone. Depression and trauma are disconnective disorders. They do not improve in isolation. To fix them you have to be connected to others.”
My husband did the right thing yesterday. He didn’t get mad at me, he made sure I was safe by texting me, and he stayed with our children and made sure they were alright. I had wished he could have been with me to help me remember to breathe, but I needed to protect our children first. They did not need to see their mother falling apart like I was.
When we all reunited, my husband told me that he felt what that person did was thoughtless and that he was not impressed which was affirmation to me that he understood why I was triggered. He also got us all home, got the kids settled, and then took me out for some medicinal nachos and respectful and supportive talking. None of this on his part would have happened four years ago. This is how much we grown as a couple after three years of hell.
PTSD sucks. Anxiety sucks. Panic attacks sucks. Depression sucks. Having supportive people that you can turn too makes all the difference. I didn’t have that for so long, but now I do. There is still a lot of healing and processing that needs to take place, but we will get there, together, as a family. This is the journey we are on now, a journey that will lead to healing for all of us. The road is going to be bumpy, with hiccups here and there, and occasionally sliding backwards, but we are all in it together to offer a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, and warm arms to feel safe in.
** Image linked to source.