[Warning: this video might (obviously) be triggering for those of you with panic disorder. It definitely put me a bit on edge. It does end on a happy note, if that's of any consolation.]
Have you ever had a panic attack in front of a large audience?
I’ve had my (unfairly large) share of panic attacks — but most of them were only in front of small audiences, like the gaggle of shoppers who were behind me in line at CVS when I doubled over in dizziness at checkout.
(The moments between that first scanned item and that final step of swiping my payment card is akin to being stuck on an elevator between floors. After the first “beep” of the UPC scanner, I am trapped. I no longer have an easy excuse to run out of the store, if needed. I have to have to have to keep it cool and stay non-panicky, dammit, until that receipt is in my hand, right? I mean, otherwise…I’d look like a complete ass running out of there.)
And, oh, the marketing meeting at my former job in a stuffy, sardine-can-of-a conference room! I’ll never forget that panic attack.
At least five middle-management bodies were packed in tightly around a small rectangular table. I was furthest away from the door to cooler air and (relative) freedom. This made me nervous — then, as always, my body betrayed me and I suddenly felt faint.
Then, the shaking.
Then, the dizziness.
So, what could I do? How could I escape without violating business decorum?
By intentionally spilling water on myself so I had an easy excuse to get up and run to the restroom, that’s how.
Seriously. I did it — and it was…weird. I felt so stupid for resorting to such a tactic, but I felt like there was no other option — escape was both difficult and embarrassing, as it often is during just about any episode of panic.
DAN HARRIS PANICS IN FRONT OF A NATIONAL AUDIENCE
Panic drives us to do some strange things. It drives us to find a way to escape — to flee from — the uncomfortable physical and mental sensations.
I know what it feels like to panic in front of one person. I know what it feels like to panic in front of two people and three people and small groups.
But a national audience? I can’t say I’ve been there (yet).
So when I saw Dan Harris on ABC World News last night recalling his on-air panic attack during a national — yes, national — news segment on statin drugs, I felt a strange kinship with him — and how he handled the situation.
He panicked, and then he escaped.
He didn’t run — not physically, at least — but he ended his news segment early by throwing the ball back to the other anchors:
His method of escape is exactly like running out of CVS or the grocery store. It’s like taking the closest highway exit after your heart begins to flip out.
RETURNING TO THE SCENE OF THE PANIC
Now, don’t mistake my commentary for a criticism of Harris’s decision — he was breathless, after all, and it was essential for him to go off air to take care of himself. He clearly wasn’t doing well, and I know that feeling. It lives in my gut.
Rather, I’m pretty damn proud of the guy.
As I’ve said before, escape from a panic-inducing situation is might be absolutely necessary at times. You certainly don’t want to be driving on a freeway, say, while you’re so woozy that you can hardly see straight.
And you’d probably stand a better chance at, say, succeeding at a job interview if you excuse yourself from the interview room for a few moments to calm down than if you’d begun to speak in choppy, breathless, and somewhat nonsensical sentences in front of the hiring manager.
But returning is the key that helps you in the long run. Escape all you want, but go back. Go back to CVS later, or tomorrow, or even next week. Blot the water off of your (erm, my) dress pants in the restroom, and then go back to the cramped meeting.
Avoidance will only reinforce the idea that the place, scenario, or trigger from which we’ve escaped is a true threat to our well-being.
Returning — even if it takes a little while to go back — can teach us what the place, scenario, or trigger is not a true threat. (And it may take multiple “returns” for this lesson to burn into our brain’s film, but it will happen with time.)
I am proud of Dan Harris for returning — especially to talk about the panic attack itself.
Kudos to you, Dan.
What do you think about this news anchor’s decision to speak so openly (and publicly!) about his panic attack?
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Best of Our Blogs: March 14, 2014 | World of Psychology (March 14, 2014)
Last reviewed: 11 Mar 2014