It’s a rush of adrenaline. Your heart starts pounding. You become short of breath and there’s a tingling in your hands. You can’t think straight, or you can only think of one thing: “this is the end!” This is a panic attack. It is the body’s response to danger and is very useful if you need to fight something, or someone, or need to run away to survive. It is not useful when it happens in a mall, a classroom, or at a family event.
Generally, doctors prescribe anti-anxiety medication when panic attacks get in the way of daily functioning. They may also recommend individuals seek counselling to learn to manage the anxiety that culminates in panic attacks.
But what if the panic is there for a reason? What if you actually are in danger?
A young woman works in the same building as the man who assaulted her and was never charged. A gay man works alongside people who regularly make jokes about beating up, or killing ‘fags.’ A woman lives with a partner who belittles and humiliates her in front of her children and his friends. A teenage girl sits next to a group a boys in her class who joke about sexual assault and how “bitches are made for ‘fucking.” All of these people have come to counselling for help to manage their anxiety.
These people do not have a disorder. They are responding appropriately to the dangerous situation they are in. I would not be doing them any favours if I were to simply focus on breathing exercises.
Instead, I have written letters to authority figures about the danger these people were in and what these authority figures could do to make the situation safer. I’ve referred individuals to ally groups, as needed, and talked about safety plans and exit plans. I’ve connected them with organizations which are working to change these situations in society.
I do also teach breathing exercises, because nothing changes overnight, and sometimes, even when circumstances do change, reminders of the situation sometimes re-ignite the panic and make it difficult to function. If an individual has been in a dangerous situation for a long time, their body may not remember how to relax, once they are out.
If you are in a situation where you are at physical, emotional, or psychological risk, get out. If you need help, don’t hesitate to ask.
Look for groups that are working to change situations like yours. Find online communities to help. Reach out. Ask someone you trust to help you. There is nothing weak about knowing when you need help and finding it.
If you were previously in a situation that was dangerous and are now safe, but are having trouble with adrenaline that keeps flooding back, un-bidden, don’t hesitate to get counselling. It helps to talk about what happened and what is different now. It helps to talk about the strength you’ve developed, as a result of your situation, and to learn how to inform your body that you are now safe. Finding groups of people who have had similar experiences to you can help you learn how others have managed to find peace.
Sometimes there is no clear trigger for panic attacks. It may be that you’ve just been under stress for a long time and that stress has built up. It might be that you have been anxious since childhood, that your father or your grandmother also suffered from panic attacks, and you’ve inherited it.
For whatever reason, if panic attacks are keeping you from sleeping, preventing you from doing your job, or keeping you from connecting with friends and family, talk to your doctor. If you are not currently in a dangerous situation, sometimes you just need to get the panic under control so that you can find help to learn to manage it. Check out Anxiety Disorders of Manitoba for more information about panic attacks and anxiety. Here are a few Breathing exercises to get you started. You can also try the 5 senses assessment when panic is bad. Another idea is to run or exercise intensely until your exertion matches your heart rate in an attempt to work off the adrenalin.
May you find peace and safety.
For more on anxiety/trauma see When YOU are the Volcano – 7 Ways to Care for Yourself
You might also want to check out Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – The New Hysteria
For more on mental illnesses see Mental Illness – A Relationship Story