I had a Panic Attack…And I was (and am) OK: 10 Things That Help
A rush of hot red ants screaming up my leg, straight to my heart: that’s what it felt like.
Sensation swarmed over me, but even so, I knew what was happening. I was having a panic attack
A few hours before, I’d had surgery to repair my left foot. A blundered dance jump had broken my 5th metatarsal (little toe side foot bone) in four places. I was sporting new internal hardware to stabilize and heal it and my foot and lower leg were encased in a heavy surgical splint.
As part of the procedure, I’d received a nerve block which left my foot feeling like a fat piece of tire rubber. Don’t get me wrong, this is absolutely ideal when someone is cutting into you, moving your parts around and screwing things together. But awake and alone at 1am, my rubber foot became first disconcerting, then creepy, then terrifying.
My mind was convinced that the splint was too tight, had cut off all circulation, and my foot was dead. I felt a fast hot rush of claustrophobia and suffocating panic.
Even as my heart hammered and my breath all but disappeared, some small sliver of me knew I was actually OK, that my foot wasn’t dead, I didn’t need to rip the splint off with my fingernails, and that I needed to breathe.
Which felt nearly impossible. So I repeated to myself, “You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.” I put my hands on my chest and took small shuddering sips of air. “You’re fine, you’re perfectly OK, it’s alright, everything’s alright.”
The smothering sensations came through my body in waves that kept eroding my attempts to calm myself down. A couple of puny breaths. I squeezed my own hands, hugged myself like a frightened child and promised myself that I wasn’t going to die. I repeated over and over, “It’s OK, you’re OK, it’s OK.” But the panic felt like it would not end.
I looked around the room to orient myself. I put one hand on the cat who was calmly sleeping beside me while my brain was melting. And I noticed my phone. I hit the Insight Timer app and typed in “PANIC.”
Joanne D’Amico’s Panic Attack Talk Down popped up and her calm voice came on to say that it was likely that if I was listening to her recording, I was probably having a panic attack. (I nodded frantically.)
She proceeded to say everything ~ every single thing ~ that I needed to hear.
Maybe you’ve had a panic attack and maybe you haven’t. Either way, this is important information to know. I’ve had two in my life: the first one I had no idea what was going on and the second I knew exactly what was happening. I was a shaking sobbing mess through both of them but the second was way easier to navigate.
Even if you are lucky enough never to have a panic attack, you might be with someone who does ~ a friend, a partner, a child. Knowing what to do could allow you to help them through it as Joanne D’Amico helped me.
First, make sure that what you are experiencing is a panic attack and not a heart attack. The symptoms are similar but distinct. Check them out and be sure you know what you’re dealing with.
If it’s a heart attack, call 911 and get to the nearest emergency room.
If it’s a panic attack, here are ten things that helped me and might help you.
1. Breathe. You’ve probably forgotten to exhale and exhaling is the best thing you can do. Imagine you are blowing out a birthday candle. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth as long as you can. At first it might be short and jagged and messy but keep doing it. It will get better. If this is all you do, it is enough.
2. Remind yourself that this will pass. It is impossible for it to keep going. It will ease off. In 20-30 minutes (maybe sooner), this will be over.
3. Remind yourself that this is normal and natural. There is nothing wrong. Panic is something that happens in the human brain. It is how your brain works. You are not broken. It’s a natural thing to happen.
4. Feel your body. Use your hands to squeeze your arms and shoulders, hug yourself, hold your own hands. Feel whatever is under your body: your feet on the floor, your body in the chair, on the bed.
5. Tell yourself that you promise to stay with yourself, you’re not going anywhere. This might sound strange, but talking to yourself like you are a fearful child or suffering friend is helpful and calming. Keep saying that it’s going to be OK and you are right here to make your way through this or whatever words and language feel reassuring to you.
6. Use your senses. Look around the room to orient yourself. Look out the window. Listen for sounds. Breathe in and smell whatever you can smell. Swallow. (Some people suggest the 5-4-3-2-1 approach: look at 5 things, touch 4 things, listen for 3 things, smell 2 things, taste one thing. But when I’m in a panic, I can’t count so this doesn’t work for me.)
7. Squeeze and shake. Reach your hands out in front of you and squeeze your hands and arms as tightly as you can, squeeze a little tighter, then shake out your hands and arms. Do it again and this time squeeze your face, too, then shake out your hands and head. You can do this with any body part.
8. Feel something cold. Drink a cold glass of water. Splash cold water on your face and hands. Press a cold washcloth to your forehead.
9. Pet your cat, hug your dog. If it feels right and someone is with you, let yourself be held. As mammals, our bodies respond to warmth with relaxation. If you don’t have another person or creature, hug onto a pillow.
10. Breathe. Keep breathing as much and as deeply as you can.
I hope you never have a panic attack. I hope no one you love ever has one. But if you do, I hope that knowing what’s happening and what can ease the experience reduces the suffering.
Breathe deep, friends. This, too, shall pass.
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