After having a panic attack the other day, one of my teammates asked me how I went from super joyful to completely void of emotion within a few hours. My answer? Panic attacks are traumatic; they completely drain both your physical and emotional energy. Your mind is already preoccupied with something, and then your body is also overloaded with adrenaline, which results in an adrenaline crash. It’s similar to running a marathon and then hitting the hay. After all that, I’d be surprised if someone was actually happy. ‘
After panic attacks, I generally fall asleep for a few hours––I actually slept 14 hours straight once. Even though the panic attacks only last for a relatively short time, the pain can also linger past the actual attack if someone’s very anxious about something. Let’s take my performance anxiety. I’ll become anxious if I mess something up, and then the next day, I’ll become anxious around the person who called out the mistake, or I’ll become anxious about making that same mistake.
So, is there any way to avoid the pain? Not entirely, but there are some tricks. Distracting yourself from the problem generally helps––at least temporarily. Hang out with some friends, go on a walk, read a good book, do a light workout or go on a walk around the neighborhood, or do something else that can help take your focus off the issue. Next, breathe. It sounds so simple, but breathing honestly helps. Why? Many people, including myself, hyperventilate during panic attacks, which can make the anxiety worse because your chest feels tight and it feels like the world is collapsing around you.
Those are a couple common strategies, but I’ve also found some others. Just simply sleeping or laying down and doing nothing often helps. Even if I’m brooding, it helps me physically and emotionally relax instead of making the panic frenzy worse. In addition, it helps relax muscle tension that occurs during a panic attack. Tense muscles add another layer of pain (as if chest pain and emotional scars weren’t enough.
According to a University Hospital Southampton fact sheet, anxiety runs in a circle: feelings, thoughts, and body reaction. A person feels anxious, so they concentrate on their pain, their body reacts, and the cycle repeats. Breaking that muscle tension can help the body relax and calm the mind. My therapist actually had me do an exercise where I tensed all my muscles––starting from my head––and then released the tension from my feet back up. I didn’t feel too tense in certain areas, but I noticed incredible tightness in my shoulders and neck area. This isn’t actually uncommon––according to AGIS, many people hold tension in their neck and shoulders. It’s even more common if you do what I do during panic attacks: hunch forward and curl up into a little ball.
Not every panic attack sufferer experiences the next thing I’ll discuss: agoraphobia. It’s the fear of venturing outside a safe space (e.g. your bedroom) in fear of encountering a situation or walking into an environment where you’ve previously experienced panic attacks. I usually don’t feel like going to work the next day if something made me very anxious before. I’ve also skipped a couple classes before if I worked on an assignment for a particular class the night before and became overly anxious about it. Furthermore, I’ll actually avoid certain areas on campus where I’ll encounter people that have made me anxious (e.g. the campus media leaders who rejected me from the positions I applied for).
Even though most people have agoraphobia because they don’t want panic attacks to occur, some people––including myself––also have it because they’re embarrassed to face people after panic attacks. Who actually wants people to see them with tears streaming down their face, snot running out of their nose, not able to talk, and just emotionally confused? I recall a couple of times where my friends invited me to hang out with them in the evenings, but I backed out a half hour before we agreed to meet because I had a panic attack and didn’t feel like going anywhere.
In stark contrast, I’m also a completely different person after I wake up. Generally, I feel much better than I did before the panic attack happened on the preceding day. Due to the extra rest, I’m also able to think more rationally and break out of the neverending adrenaline cycle. Sometimes, I’ve even found myself smiling, wanting to actually go places, and excited to see people.
Having panic attacks can make you feel like two different people––or perhaps even like the Hulk (AKA you have someone living inside of you that comes out every so often, but you can’t control when it happens). Are there any ways around this double life?
I’m glad to say, yes. There are. But it’s an exercise of self-control.
First, have a go-to person when you have panic attacks. If you’re stepping into new environments, such as a new job in a new area, this can become difficult. However, you can certainly call people who live far away from you. I usually call my mom, talk to my small group leader, or text one of my best friends from Biola. These people can help you process things rationally, talk you through your emotions, and calm you down (especially if you’re spouting emotional vomit).
Second, have a stretch or muscle tension-releasing routine. Not everyone is flexible or enjoys even light physical activity, but I swear it helps. You can also spread cooling gel, apply a heat pack to your muscles, or do something else that will psychologically hijack your mind so your body will calm down.
Third, find a place you can escape to––a place away from reality, people, noise, etc;. Think of mountaintops, quiet rooms, study areas in libraries, or anything similar. If nothing else, find someone else’s house where you feel comfortable. I actually have found that, despite becoming embarrassed after having panic attacks, I feel very calm if I’m in the house of someone I trust, such as someone from my church.
Fourth, find something that calms both your mind and body down. For some people, it’s a sound. I personally feel much calmer after swimming, listening to running water, or even holding a water bottle in my hands. It’s weird, I know, but it works. For others, smelling a candle, petting a dog, or reading a book puts their mind at ease.
Feeling like two different people is definitely hard, and I can’t promise that you can completely escape that feeling. However, you can definitely manage and as time goes on, the result of panic attacks can become less severe if you recognize what’s happening to your mind and body. I’ve been to the emergency room twice for panic attacks, but I’m glad to say I haven’t been there for one in over a year, praise God. I hope those of you who suffer from panic attacks, or know someone who does, know that you are not insane. I remember telling my parents once that I felt like a crazy person, and they reassured me that I wasn’t. It’s tough, but you are still a great person and people love you, even when you can’t love yourself.