I had my 1st panic attack last week. I awoke from a night terror; heart pounding, covered in sweat & unable to breathe. I felt like someone was covering my mouth to stop me breathing.
Every muscle in my body felt tense. My heartbeat was banging loud throughout my body. My nervous system was wired in a hyper-freeze response.
Fight or flight was not an option.
After a few moments fearing that I was about to die, I realised where I was. I told myself that it was only a nightmare & forced myself to breathe. The 1st breath felt almost impossible to take, like my body no longer remembered how to breathe as it prepared for the end.
“Focus, breathe, you can do this.”
I told myself.
Each breath needed my undivided attention. Slowly, gradually, it became easier. My breaths became deeper & longer.
With each breath, the muscles slowly relaxed, & the racing thud of my heartbeat slowly returned to its familiar regular rhythm.
I turned on the bedside lamp; bringing light to the darkness. I kept reminding myself that I was safe, in bed & that nothing was trying to kill me. I placed a hand on my heart to connect with the pulsating life within, gently supporting my body & mind to let go of the terrifying experience.
As my nervous system slowed down, I tried to return to sleep, but the fear of terror kept me awake. When I turned the light off & dropped into the darkness, the fear of panic & helplessness returned with a vicelike grip. My inner little girl could not completely separate the night terror from reality.
“What if I suffocate & die? What if I have another panic attack?”
The thoughts repeated round & round in my mind. I felt the fear grow & my body became tighter with each thought.
“Bring it back to the breath. Breathe. Let go of the thoughts. Let go of the tension.”
With long deep breaths, I exhaled the tension away from the muscles, visualising them relax. And with the relaxation came mental & physical exhaustion. A welcome relief.
I felt my body supported by the breath. I felt my mind & spirit supported by the light. Staying with the breath & with a hand on my heart, I slowly surrendered to sleep.
The next day, I realised my body & mind were screaming to be heard. There had been various triggers to this episode, creating a constant state of hypervigilance & inability to sleep for weeks.
Although I have supported people with anxiety & panic attacks for over a decade, this lived experience stirred up so many questions…
How would someone deal with this if they have no experience of mental health & no knowledge of the resources that are available?
Where would they go? How would they cope?
Research shows that people with anxiety disorders are more likely to contemplate suicide (Kanwar et al. 2013). I thought of friends who ended their lives this year & wondered; Did they have panic attacks? Did they feel anxious & isolated even though they had people around them?
I wondered how else I could support people impacted by panic attacks & anxiety. So I created a list of powerful strategies to prevent & overcome panic attacks / anxiety (below).
Techniques to prevent & overcome panic attacks / anxiety
~~ Take care of yourself: If the above strategies like too much, seek a therapist, friend or mental health professional to support your journey ~~
Image: Tom Dahm on Unsplash