Letter to a First-Time Panic Attack Sufferer
I definitely remember mine (even though it was years ago!). I was a college sophomore, living in a ivory-colored cell block of a dorm room. It was well past midnight on a weeknight and my roommate was fast asleep. Within just a few minutes of climbing into my extra-long bed and unplugging the Christmas lights that lit our room, I suddenly felt like I couldn’t feel half of my body.
My heart started to race. I became flushed and lightheaded. It felt like adrenaline had flushed out my entire bloodstream.
I thought I was having a stroke.
I felt scared. And I felt alone. I spent at least an hour in front of my bathroom mirror, carefully studying each hemisphere of my face for any drooping or incongruity with the other half. Then, shivering from fear, I wandered around the empty dorm room halls and drew stick figures on strangers’ whiteboards until I exhausted myself to sleep.
So, when my friend (“Becky”, we’ll call her) texted me last week to tell me she’d just had her very first panic attack, the empathy practically leaked from my pores and onto my phone. Her text looked like this:
“I had my first ever panic attack on Saturday night. It was crazy. One of those things I thought I knew about until it happened – wow. Much love and understanding anew, my dear friend.”
I called Becky immediately and became sorely upset that we lived in different towns. I could have used a good hug on the night of my own first panic attack, so I was ready to dole out dozens, if needed, for her.
If I couldn’t give hugs, I could at least lend an ear and some advice.
I HAD MY FIRST PANIC ATTACK. NOW WHAT?
After chatting with her for a little while, I learned this: she had been standing inside her pantry (which is essentially a small closet) when her heart began to race and the world started to feel cartoon-ish and unreal. She also had a hard time breathing. Not sure of what to do, she ran out of the pantry and into her living room. She suddenly noticed that she was crying. It took some time for her body to calm down, and even after a long night of sleep, she slept throughout most of the following day before she felt normal again.
My advice to Becky, and to any new panicker:
1. Rule out any medical problems. It’ll put your mind at ease when your doctor announces that you are physically fine. And, in the off-chance that there is something wrong with you, at least you’ll know and you’ll be able to treat that problem instead of letting it lurk undetected.
2. Don’t avoid the trigger. You had your panic attack while trying to organize your pantry. Go back into your pantry when you’re feeling well. Finish organizing it, even if you need to take baby steps, and see how innocuous your pantry is. Avoiding a panic trigger will only amplify the threat.
3. There’s little need to start deeply analyzing yourself and the situation. This probably isn’t about your mother or that time you got lost in the department store when you were four years old. Avoid Freud and Jung and all that. It will probably complicate things. This situation is simple: it’s about stimulus and response. Figure out if the panic was caused by, say, a medication you took, a certain fear that you have, or a stressful event in recent history. But don’t dive too deeply. Sometimes, you can find a simple answer. Sometimes, you can’t. (And that’s okay.)
4. Get help. If the panic attack bothers you to the point where you’re afraid to go to school, work, or afraid to do any activity that’s important to your daily life, seek out some kind of therapy now. Don’t wait and let the problem grow. Even completing a workbook might be enough of a help. I like the Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne or An End to Panic by Elke Zuercher-White. Try that, or make an appointment with a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders.
5. Don’t forget: a panic attack is uncomfortable, but it won’t hurt you. You’re not going to die, even though you might feel like you will. Panic eventually subsides. Your heartbeat will slow down, and your breathing will return to normal. You’ll stop shaking, and the world will seem real again soon enough.
6. Acknowledge that you had a panic attack, and then put that idea to rest once any medical problems have been ruled out. Don’t dwell on it. Go about your normal activities. Focus on other things, especially things that bring you joy, like your family or working or reading or cooking. It’s always wise to watch your stress level and make sure you don’t overfill your plate, but you don’t want your life to shrink, either. (And it WILL shrink if you dwell on the who/what/when/where/why of your panic attack.) Settle back in to your daily life at a pace you can handle.
Beretsky, S. (2011). Letter to a First-Time Panic Attack Sufferer. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/panic/2011/12/letter-to-a-first-time-panic-attack-sufferer/