I almost don’t know how to start this. “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year” (1)
I am one of those 18.1% who suffer. When I’m in panic it’s almost as if a doppelgängertook over my body. So many people do not understand what happens and that the person has no control over how they feel. Stress and cortisol flood the body.
Last night I had a panic attack. I actually had several in the past week, and 4 or 5 just yesterday alone. What made my last two particularly long and painful is that other people were home and weren’t reacting compassionately. They live with me and don’t quite understand what I go through, how painful it is, and how little to no control I have over how I feel or can possibly react. I can empathize and understand that it can be scary to someone else – really I can. I don’t want to be in full-blown panic either, believe me – way MOREso than the people around me don’t want to see it.
A key driver is understanding. Panic disorder with panic attacks is not something that can be helped at the moment or have a lid put on it. What makes it all so much worse is when those around you and in society judge you and falsely believe mental health issues are something that can be helped (2). I’m writing this because if my own household doesn’t quite understand what this is about, how can any one else? I need to do my part in spreading awareness.
I didn’t know much about true anxiety either. Why should I? We throw the word around a lot. Many of us live with low -evel anxiety constantly. As a society we are mostly all anxious. Anxiety and Panic Disorder is a little different. “This is not to be confused with nervousness — what most people experience in normal situations. Nervousness and anxiety can both cause similar symptoms, but normal nervousness such as how one feels before making a big presentation or applying for a job differs from anxiety in that it’s rational.” (3) Some things can be helped or talked away from. Normal nervousness is one.
I’ve read a lot about anxiety in the past two years since I’ve been diagnosed. Stress is prevalent in our culture. A large part is due to technology and the bombardment of information. Also, the ability for others to reach into our lives at any moment day or night through social media, texting, email, etc. When I was younger and we had a house phone attached to a wall, either going to someone’s house or calling on that phone was the only way to let the outside in. When you left work everyone was shutdown for the day. No one was on texts and emails creating new things to sort through when you got to work – what you left it as the day before is how it was when you arrived the next morning. These things cause constant low-level stress. A text at 9pm makes our hearts beat faster and creates a false sense of urgency to pick up the phone to read it. Whether the message is from a loved one or your boss, the body reacts as if it’s in danger (heart rate, quickened breath, maybe stomach in knots). While we all might experience that quick burst of anxiety when the cell phone dings at 9pm, after a few minutes it goes away. For those of us with an anxiety disorder it not only doesn’t go away, it escalates.
This article describes it better than I can-
“Picture this: you’re asleep at night when suddenly you wake up to the sound of someone breaking into your house. What do you do? You panic, like every sane human being would. You start to sweat, you breathe heavily or struggle to breathe, you feel nauseous, your heart races, there’s a heavy pressure in your chest, so on and so forth.
Now picture something else: all of those symptoms happening when you aren’t actually in any danger. No one is breaking into your house. Nothing is about to harm you or is currently harming you. Your body suddenly just starts to panic anyway. That is a panic attack.”
With panic disorder, the body for no real and current reason goes into full fight or flight mode. It differs for everyone, but for me in particular I’m often triggered by something externally that was threatening in the past. Many times I cannot initially identify the trigger. It is almost impossible too when the brain is flooded and the executive functioning goes offline.
“Panic attacks arouse the body to a peak level of excitement which makes the individual feel not in control of him or herself. The mind is preparing for a false fight or flight mode, forcing the body to take over to help the victim face or run from the perceived danger, real or not.” (4) The reptilian brain that all land creatures have to flee or fight is what takes over. Rational thinking is completely shut down. It’s not the time to start figuring out the cause or rationalizing with the individual.
I want to feel normal and not panic more than anything. Riding it out, medicine and therapy are helpful, but it took years for the body to become dysfunctional to this point; it likely will not go away overnight.
I can tell you what makes it worse for me –
- Being with someone during a panic attack that doesn’t understand and gets annoyed or mad if they can’t help me. I can’t be helped at that point. Someone in my face rationalizing it for me feels condescending. Shunning me at that point feels humiliating and akin to abandonment. I’m humiliated enough. Standing in judgment only makes it worse.
- Another horror is trying to hide it to not scare other people. I feel further trapped. I’ve had panic attacks on an airplane, in restaurants, at work, while driving, while getting ready for bed, when waking up… Of course no one wants to see or hear it, but other people hiding or pretending nothing is going on just makes me feel like a freak creature that needs to be avoided.
- Last but not least on is the shame of having to hide a huge piece of yourself to others. Our society doesn’t look kindly to Mental Health issues. Before suffering myself, I too thought it was the sign of a weak mind and something you can control. Last summer I spent a full month in an IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program). But forbid I let people know. My own step kids and extended family were kept in the dark. I was afraid to tell people at work why I was on FMLA. It may sound silly or it may not, but if I felt that way I would be willing to bet I’m not the only one.
May is Mental Health Awareness month (5). If you don’t suffer from any mental health issues (Yay You!), it’s very likely you know someone who does; you just don’t know they do. Let’s all do our part to bring awareness and be compassionate to one another to avoid shame, humiliation and judgment. We are all human. Let’s treat one another as such.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics#
- We Need to Talk. Our Society Has an Issue With Anxiety and Mental Health. https://futurism.com/we-need-to-talk-our-society-has-an-issue-with-anxiety-and-mental-health/amp/
- https://medium.com/@gtinari/how-to-handle-someone-elses-anxiety-or-panic-attacks-51ee63f5c23bHow to Handle Someone Else’s Anxiety or Panic Attacks
- How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack https://m-wikihow-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/m.wikihow.com/Help-Someone-Having-a-Panic-Attack?amp=1&_js_v=0.1&usqp=mq331AQECAEoAQ%3D%3D#origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com&prerenderSize=1&visibilityState=prerender&paddingTop=54&p2r=0&horizontalScrolling=0&csi=1&aoh=15272981860562&viewerUrl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com%2Famp%2Fs%2Fm.wikihow.com%2FHelp-Someone-Having-a-Panic-Attack%253famp%3D1&history=1&storage=1&cid=1&cap=swipe%2CnavigateTo%2Ccid%2Cfragment%2CreplaceUrl
- Mental Health America http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may