My Experience of a Panic Attack

Lightning over torontoFor me, Friday 23rd August 2019 is a day to remember, as that was that day that I experienced my first (and I really hope my last) panic attack.

About me

As a psychotherapist using the human givens approach, I have helped hundreds of people with anxiety, phobias and panic attacks. I’ve worked both with individuals and groups and have even produced a resource to help people who suffer from anxiety.

The thing is - I don’t generally suffer from anxiety myself. In fact, people often tell me that I am always able to turn things around and to put a positive spin on them. I originally got into helping people with anxiety 20 years ago, because I wanted to help family, friends and the people I work with to cope with and overcome anxiety and depression.

Generally, I am quite laid back, and stay (apparently) calm in situations in which many would be anxious. For me, anxiety is usually a choice and one I simply don’t choose very often. I know that if I get anxious about simple things it doesn’t help me. When I start to stress about something I might have lost, I simply take a deep breath and get into my logical head to retrace steps and find the item. If I am worried about someone, I will check that worry and send them my love and care. This said, I do avoid things I KNOW will make me anxious, such as bungee jumping, skydiving, mountain climbing and wire walking. 

Let’s say that on a scale of 1-10 my anxiety levels sit happily within the 2-3 range most of the time. Occasional my stress level momentarily jumps to a 6-7, but I quickly calm back to 2-3 and I am happy to be completely chilled at a 1! I use 7-11 breathing if I find myself getting stressed in a queue or a traffic jam.

The only time I have ever felt close to a panic attack was at Paddington Station after an extremely stressful couple of days in London. I felt a tsunami of emotions which I quelled within 3 - 4 minutes by reciting girls names corresponding to the alphabet in my head! (A technique I highly recommend as it takes you into your rational mind and stops the emotional hijacking.) 

I have had some extremely trying and worrying times in my life - and I have not panicked. So here I will just explore what happened on this occasion and put it into a context that makes sense to me, and hopefully to you too. 

What led up to the panic attack.

I work from ‘The Needs Model’ of wellbeing and my experience shows that Anxiety is caused when emotional needs are not met and/or our innate resources are not used well. 

Let’s look at what happened on that fateful Friday, by examining which of my innate needs were (not) met and the specific events that led up to the panic attack and what it felt like at the time. 

We had been in Canada for three days and had adjusted fairly well to the climate, the dollars and the really big buildings in Toronto.

We were in town for a three-day conference.

For me, just like an accident, this panic attack was not caused by one big thing happening - but a set of unfortunate incidents that lead up to the event.

I will outline the events and then share my ‘emotional needs audit’ for the day - as you will see, individually, none of them was a big deal.

  1. Our hotel neighbour’s alarm was exactly the same as ours and woke us at 5:00am - starting the day with 2 hours less sleep than usual.
  2. Meeting new people - finding places and not being entirely sure what the day would hold.
  3. The music and the conference speakers were so loud I had to buy earplugs. 
  4. Navigating a large hotel, finding a shop (for earplugs), coffee, toilets and WiFi in a short time frame.
  5. Having two lunch dates, made a wrong first decision and then was late for the second option. Missed part of the talk, part of lunch and any networking opportunity.
  6. Being given (and expected to wear) tee shirts and a baseball cap. Attire that is WAY out of my comfort zone!!
  7. I’m still finding the auditorium speakers very loud even though we have moved to the back and I’m wearing earplugs.
  8. End of day - but only a very short turn around before heading out for the evening 'jolly' on a boat.
  9. I need to pick up supplies, meet up with husband, go to the hotel room, change clothes, ‘powder my nose’ and find a boat before it leaves in 15 minutes.

I am aware that my experience of these events was very different from the experience of many others. I also know that we are all capable of experiencing anxiety and panic but looking back at how my own emotional needs were being met the first 14 hours of that day I can see that I was heading for the panic that happened. Party people who are used to working in a busy environment with long and busy days may well thrive on this, but I didn't!

An Emotional Needs Audit

Innate need How am I doing?  Scale out of 10
(higher = more stressed)
Food and Drink Ok, but I am hungry now. 8
Movement Ok, but I was either sitting, standing in crowds (which gives me backache) or rushing. By the time I panic I have been unable to move for 30 minutes. 10
Sleep  I have been awake for 14 busy hours. 7
Security Out of my comfort zone on several occasions. 7
Control Not knowing what was happening for much of the day. I don’t know where we are going or when we will get off the boat. 9
Attention Unable to talk to others due to not being able to hear above the noise. 10
Emotional Connection Not being in the right place at the right time to meet and chat throughout the day. My husband is around but we ‘lose each other’ several times in the crowd. 10
Community  Feeling like an outsider as unable to talk to others. 10
Achievement Feeling a ‘failure’ late, disorganised and not having had any good conversations. 9
Respect I’m really not feeling ‘seen’ and not proud of the way I am feeling right now. 10
Meaning and Purpose I love sharing ideas and want to connect but cannot. 9
Privacy I cannot hear myself think - There is nowhere to go to ‘get away’ 10

Even though I have been feeling at a stress level well above my normal for 14 hours now I do get to the boat, in time, with my (lovely and very understanding) husband.

This next part of the story tells of my experience of a panic attack. 

The music is louder than a live band in a small space.

The boat does not leave for around 30 minutes after we get on.

I sit near my husband - we both try to have conversations with people close. Everyone is shouting. I cannot hear above the music. - (I didn’t think to bring earplugs and my ears are hurting) I soon see no point trying to talk to anyone so I look out of the window and take a few photos and distract myself by playing mindless games on my phone.

Our boat arrives at the destination. With everyone else, I stand up and walk towards the exit. However, we are  having trouble docking. I look out at everyone looking frantically happy on the quayside. I cannot engage conversation with anyone here though as I cannot talk loud enough or hear them. I am slow to realise that I have moved even closer to the speakers. I stand by the window. My husband is in the line a few feet behind. I watch people having fun on the shore. I hear people chatting and laughing behind me. I feel really, really stuck, and isolated. I don’t want to be here. I cannot hear myself think…. I want to scream. I want to hide…. My internal narrative says: “What if I curl up in the corner?” “I could crawl under the table” “No that would just be silly” "Come on - just look out of the window, it won't be long and you can get away from the noise”…. Boat is still docking. It feels like about 20 minutes have gone by, I have no idea of time. Then I start to cry. I’m facing the window and the shuddering starts, “Why doesn’t anyone reach out?" “I hope no-one sees me”. Luckily I am not by an open window at this point as I consider jumping the 12 feet onto the dock…. None of these thoughts are working for me I know... I cannot hear anything except the noise that hurts my ears. As I shudder and cry - I step away from the window and catch the eye of my husband - he raises his eyebrows and I shake my head - then it starts, without warning I shout - it is totally involuntary, just a shout - then another shout bubbles up - I slap my hands to my face to try to stop the shouts escaping but they just keep coming, and I keep hitting my face. I knock my glasses off as Alec and others guide me to the outside of the boat. There are people around - they look at me as if I am mad - they try to move away. The shouting starts to form words “I can’t bear it, I can't bear it, make it stop, please make it stop” It is as if I am watching myself totally dissociated from the noise that fills me and the words that erupt from me. Alec, my husband is behind me - strong. Two women start talking to me, as they ask what they can do for me (I have no idea or words that would make sense anyway) but they form that amazing human connection and bring me back into connection with myself. I know this is a panic attack. I know that I will be ok, I know I am not "broken" and that I will recover from this, I just need to be free of the loud noise in a confined space. 

Until the panic started  I had been able to use my innate resources to meet my needs and be OK with the situation. 

This table shows how I was able and then unable to use these resources.

Resource When it works  When it doesn’t
Rational Thinking Use phone for photos and games. Can’t concentrate now.
Imagination “It’ll be fine as soon as we are off the boat and have food”. “We are never getting off this boat”.
Emotions Feel “it’ll be ok soon”. Fight/Flight/Freeze/Dissociate.
Pattern Matching I’ve been at loud gigs and busy meetings before and been fine. This feels like the worst nightmare ever.
Memory People are friendly when we get a chance to speak. I’ve never been anywhere this scary before.
Rapport Smile and move to the side where others are looking out of the window. Just manage to shake my head at my husband ...
Dreaming Brain Not asleep - hope it works later. Not asleep - hope it works later.
Observing self It’s ok, just act normally Bindi! Later I will be OK and able to see the bigger picture. I am observing my body from a completely detached position. It is shouting and sobbing and not under my control.

Once connected with other humans and away from the direct fire of the speakers, I can think more clearly. I am hungry and exhausted - I know that other people will judge me for the actions of this shouting, out of control woman. Yet I know that I have been to a place that so many people live on the edge of. I am grateful that I know that this does not have to happen to me again. I have not ‘blown a fuse’ I was nowhere close to death or madness. I do not blame myself or feel shame at finding the limits of my own stress tolerance. I know that there are always more people who will help and care for me than there are who would judge me and consider me ‘less than’.

Within minutes I am off the boat, sitting quietly on the edge of the party, I have food and drink and can even join some conversation above the noise. 

An hour later - I board the boat for the return journey, I check with the captain where the noise will be least and enjoy watching the night time sky from the top deck - Sitting with Alec I don’t even consider engaging in conversation!

The next day - many of the same challenges are repeated, but I stay calm and easy and make the most of the experience of learning together with a great bunch of people. 

When I reflect on what happened, I felt more and more alienated from others, my partner and eventually myself. The real help I got was from the people around me that were prepared to be ‘there for me’ both at that moment and the next day. I have always hoped I would be able to be there for someone in extreme distress, I now know that that simple human connection really does work wonders. The only way I could see myself as a human being was in the reflection of others who showed me their true humanity. 

I share my experience in the hope that it might help others. If you have had panic attacks It might help you to know that you are not alone in having these experiences. If you know someone that sufferes from panic attacks this might help you to see how it can happen and what you might be able to do to help them.

If you want to know more about anxiety and your innate needs and resources do look at Anxiety Freedom Cards. 

Bindi Gauntlett F.HGI. Hg.Dip.P. Co-Founder of Anxiety Freedom Cards

 

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