I’ve suffered panic attacks since I was very young
and it’s taken society a long time to understand them.
How do you deal with panic and acute anxiety?
I wrote a status the other day, on FB, which described a burgeoning panic attack . Sometimes someone’s description can be an ideal opportunity to learn about panic and how it affects our lives.
Panic attacks are violent, and often out of character, reactions to stress and anxiety, sometimes they’re triggered and sometimes they appear out of the blue and for no reason at all. It’s a fear response that our bodies exaggerate when it’s unnecessary.
The physical symptoms can be so bad people can believe they’re having a heart attack. Your heart races, your breathing becomes shallow, you feel faint, shaky, sweaty, fearful, anxious, dizzy, light-headed, sick and nauseous. You can get cramps, abdominal pain, chest pain, and you can become totally dissociative or disconnected. Things around you become unreal.
Your flight, fight, or freeze response kicks in and – boom – you’re in the middle of a panic attack. They can last anywhere from five minutes to up to an hour. The residue from the attack can last all day, or all week, and it can trigger further attacks. You might only have one every now and then or they can be regular.
Learning to live with them or with someone who suffers from them can be difficult, but as always with mental health issues – education, understanding, and compassion are crucial. Once you have discovered the best way to deal with them life can return to something similar to normal.
In Beneath the Old Oak I cover anxiety, depression, and panic. Meg suffers chronic anxiety and at only fourteen she has to deal with the erratic behaviour of her mother – which includes panic attacks and disturbing moods.
In this excerpt Meg is reluctantly out shoe shopping with her mother and a brewing panic attack (you’ll notice cues for her rising panic like shredding the receipt in her fingers as she waits, how hot she feels, her impatience, and tears):
““Excuse me?” Meg’s mum waved the black trainer at the sales-boy over the child’s head. “Could we please try these in a four?”
He nodded, adding the trainer to his teetering pile of boxes. As he disappeared Mum glared at the whining child as his mother tried to prise the football boot from his grasp. Mum glanced at her watch and pulled an old receipt out of her pocket. She stared in the direction of the stockroom and began tearing the receipt into thin strips.
Meg sidled up to her mother as the boy’s mum finally wrested the boot from him, returned it to the shelf and dragged him away, his complaints still echoing. Mum ignored her daughter’s grin. “He’s going to be a real brat one day. Ah, here are yours.”
Meg noted the single trainer in the sale-boy’s hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, “only got these in a three and then a seven, sold out.”
“That’s a vast difference in sizes, no others in stock? This is a shoe shop isn’t it?” The receipt in Mum’s hand turned into confetti.
“It’s okay Mum. I like these too…” Meg grabbed two random trainers off the wall. “Can I try these instead? Size four.”
He nodded and disappeared.
“It’s hot in here.” Mum unbuttoned her coat.
“Mum…” Meg gently tugged her elbow.
“What?” Mum sounded annoyed then realised two lads were trying to get past. She stepped back and knocked into a tall pile of shoe-boxes. Meg just managed to grab the top one as it toppled and stopped the rest from slipping. “And there’s no space!”
“Mum, why don’t you sit down?”
“That’s for people trying on shoes. How long is he going to be? I told you it would be busy.”
Meg hoped he would be quick.
He returned with two boxes. “These are a five, haven’t got a four, but these are fours.”
Meg took the boxes. “I’ll try them, thanks.”
Another customer grabbed the sales-boy as Meg tried the trainers.
“So?” asked her mother.
“Too big, they’re slipping.” Meg handed her the trainers.
“Stupid boxes…” Mum groaned as she tried to fit the bulky shoes into the tight box.
“Here, like this.” Meg replaced them and slipped her feet into the other pair.
“The right size?”
“Try walking in them.”
“I am.” Meg walked up and down the narrow path through mountains of boxes and footwear. Meg frowned, deciding whether to choose a pair she didn’t like just to get Mum out of the shop. “No, they’re pinching my little toes.” She was the one who’d be stuck wearing them.
Mum sighed. “Okay.”
“Let’s leave it, come back another day?” suggested Meg.
“No, you need trainers, we’re getting trainers.”
Meg’s sigh matched her mother’s as she pulled off the shoes. She left her mum to pack them away and moved, in her socked feet, back to the display. Not a moment later she heard a frustrated grunt and a trainer flew past her ear. It rebounded on the wall and knocked three shoes to the ground. Meg ducked and twirled round. Her mother stood, red-faced and furious.
“Damn shoe boxes!” she cried. “Nothing fits in them!”
Shocked, Meg picked up the offending shoe, moved back to her mum and put her hand on her arm. Her mother flipped her hand away. “Just leave them and I’ll do it. It’s fine!” Meg knelt and put the shoes in the box. She glanced up at Mum. Fire flashed and irritation simmered and she was oblivious to the stares from other customers.
“And it’s too hot! We come in wearing coats, because it’s winter, why do they make it so hot?” Mum trembled, her fists clenching and unclenching at her side.
Meg barely zipped up her own boots before ushering her mother out of the store.
“But you need shoes!”
“Not this much!” Meg shook her head. “Dad can drop me down later.”
She took her mum’s arm and led her to the car.
“I’ve let you down! I’m useless. I promised I’d never let you down…” wailed Mum.
“It doesn’t matter,” insisted Meg.
“It does! I promised I’d never let you down, because my mum always let me down!” Within moments Mum’s aggressive stance switched to the frustration of a child, and tears streamed down her cheeks. Meg, on the other hand, turned the tables to comfort her mother, something she was becoming far too familiar with.”
Panic attacks can often be misconstrued for aggression, shyness, anxiety, arrogance, and much more. Meg learns to deal with her mother’s panic as her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. It’s difficult to live with panic and with someone else who suffers from a panic disorder.
I know I’ve often felt guilty for having a panic disorder as it’s not something you want your children to have to deal with. The above scenario at the shoe shop is one my children can relate to. I can easily tell you that shopping for shoes is one of my least favourite activities I ever had to do with my children. Shoes are expensive, they wear out fast, feet grow too fast, and children are both indecisive and picky. My youngest, in particular, would um and ah, and be unable to choose a suitable shoe. It’s a stressful enough activity for a parent with social inhibitions let alone with three children in tow.
We arrived at Clarks, the final shoe shop in town, as a last resort, due to their expensive shoes and how busy they always were. The ‘take a ticket’ queue system in a stuffy, upstairs shop was challenging enough, as were the price tickets. Finally, after waiting for what seemed like forever we were trying on shoes. I had an on sale shoe in mind, my child did not… and I felt my body prickle and electricity charged the air. I knew what was happening and my priority was to make a sale and get out of the shop as soon as possible.
The shoe we wanted was not the exact shoe size for which the assistant had measured my child, half a size bigger, but cheap and on sale. When I said we’d buy them anyway she gave me one of those patronising looks that stoke the fires of hell in those it’s aimed at. Panic surged, I shook, I sweated, my vision blurred, and I knew tears were stinging. At the cash desk she primly told me that unless I bought insoles too then if I got home and decided to return the wrong size shoes they’d be unable to take them back.
I had no intention of either buying insoles or taking them back. But that statement to someone in the throes of a panic attack was too much. I burst into tears. Not just one or two, but floods – and noisy too. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t move. I knew the whole shop was staring at me. I knew my children were scared and probably embarrassed, but nothing would stop. I threw money at the till and ran with the shoes, my children hurrying after me in shock.
I don’t think I ever went back.
Symptoms of panic attacks are sometimes difficult to hide. My family all know if one is brewing. I get agitated, lost, I shake, and I attack myself – biting my nails or pulling at my skin, scratching, or digging fingernails in deep. When you’ve experienced them you recognise them. I know them in my daughters too.
There are ways to stave off a panic attack, but you have to learn what works for you, and you have to be in a situation to do what you need to. I have to remove myself physically and fast. I also use Calm Harm a phone app with a breathing exercise on it that helps to bring my breathing back down and in time. I carry a stim to hold and ground myself with – an acorn cup. You can meditate, or use Mindfulness. I can be held close, but only by family, if anyone else tries that they’ll be physically attacked. I can be talked down, again usually only by family.
I also take medication. Propranolol, a beta blocker, works for me. It slows down my heart rate and biologically removes the panic from my system.
What works for you?
My Facebook status described a panic attack as it rose and it helped people to understand what happens when an attack hits. I took a tablet and this one faded away.
If you suffer, know that there are many of us who deal with this on a daily basis,
you are not alone.
Do you live with someone who suffers from a Panic Disorder,
how do you and they cope?
What works best for you?
These pages from the Mental Health charity Mind are very insightful if you need help with understanding and coping with Panic Attacks. Please go and visit your GP if you need help. Counselling and medication are available.
Meg’s mother is having a breakdown, and Meg can’t cope. Seeking to escape bullies and overwhelming anxiety, she discovers an old oak tree whose revelations begin to change her life.
Beneath the Old Oak is published by BHC Press and is a novel that will completely move you.
“A brave book that tackles serious issues for a younger audience in a mature and sensitive way.” —LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Beneath the Old Oak is now available in eBook and paperback (choose your format) at:
Amazon UK, Amazon US, and your local Amazon. Barnes and Noble, Waterstones, Google Play, Kobo, iTunes, and other online outlets.
I suffered severe shaking mostly, with the sweating, and occasional hyperventilating. Mine would never be ‘up to an hour’, they’d go on for hours and hours. I had to walk mine out to try and get them to stop. Always at night, often very late. My partner at the time was good that he would walk with me. I couldn’t talk during them and couldn’t have someone talking to me. (I don’t think, I can’t honestly remember now – I know I can’t now if I get in a panic).
For me it went on for over 6 months, every single night. I then went into therapy and found my way out of them. I have not suffered a panic attack like it in years. I have had panic attacks, but triggered by vertigo or going in a boat on rough seas, and they have stopped when what is scaring me stops.
I honestly believe it is possible to recover from them permanently … mostly because I did. It’s not easy and it is a life’s work. But I don’t even get them at the peripheral edge of mind, like I did for a few years after. It’s about building inner self security. It’s about being sure of yourself – who you are and that you are okay – not ‘going to be’ okay, but already are, irrespective of what is happening in the moment. But it does take time to get there. I hope you do.
And I say this to give you hope, that you can get on the other side of them. Not to feel like you are failing by not being there yet. I was 21/22 at the time, I’m 49 now. And I still struggle with a lot of things. Fortunately anxiety isn’t one of them – not in that form anyway.
They must have been awful, Miranda. Do you think it was more than just panic attacks? I’ve had ones that don’t stop… but was told they were a series of attacks melding together… and one ‘episode’ of panic can last for hours, or days, or even weeks. They usually then just lump it in as acute anxiety.
Understanding (and labelling) them is still problematic in my eyes.
I seem to get periods of my life when they stop and I’m fine, then they come back with a vengeance. School was hell in my final two years, I used to leave after registration and run home – or run from PE or maths and leave the premises, but no one ever mentioned my absences! So they’re on and off, the last three years haven’t been good.
I know I can beat it, I think I’m tired though and too much anxiety contributes!
This offers a great insight in how someone feels when suffering an anxiety attack. It is such a hard thing for onlookers to understand and I’m sure this will helpful to sufferers and their families. Thank you.
Thanks, Pauline, panic attacks can be so difficult for people who’ve never experienced them to understand.
I’m all about educating and understanding, it makes a huge difference.