29 Mar Here’s What’s Happening When I Have a Panic Attack
In this series of blogs, we explore the realities of anxiety and depression through the lens of real-world first-person narratives from anonymous teens. What else can we learn about these issues? How can we work to overcome them together? Let’s talk about it.
Panic attacks are something that no one ever really prepares you for. The first time that you fall on the ground gasping for air for no discernable reason can be a scary experience. Watching someone have a panic attack is almost as stressful. What do you do? What if your friend just became paralyzed for no logical reason? What does somebody go through when something like this is happening?
Panic attacks happen when the flight of the ‘fight or flight’ response goes haywire. When someone experiences an attack, its symptoms normally manifest in two forms: Mental and Physical.
Have you ever been in a place where someone pulled the fire alarm for no reason? Do you remember the confusion and craziness that can ensue when people are afraid of a fire that isn’t there? For me, that’s what a panic attack feels like.
Panic attacks start off small before they hit their peaks. Normally, it begins with an adrenaline rush that flows through your head before reaching your arms and legs. This is the initial reaction to what your brain has signified as a threat. While you may not recognize something wrong, your brain begins to overreact, and goes into overdrive.
For me, personally, it begins with a headache and a detachment from reality. I experience what I call ‘the fog’ as I begin to recede from the situation. This is a last ditch attempt for my brain to get away from the situation. It’s as if I play dead, then maybe the thing that set me off will go away.
Then, I begin to get incredibly irrational and fearful. My thoughts snap to ‘this is it, I’m going to die.’ It sounds crazy, but in a moment of extreme panic, it makes perfect sense. The cause of such an experience is simple: because you’re afraid, and you don’t have a reason to be, your brain will just make up a reason.
I’m panicking because I’m in danger. But how am I in danger? Because I’m going to die. So I’m correct in reacting this way. It may not be the best logic, but in a heightened state, the brain will take what it can get.
So you’ve hit the point where you’re freaking out mentally, how does the panic attack make you fall to the ground or twitch or anything else like that?
See, it all goes back to one simple fact: in a panic attack, you’re afraid for no reason. You’re fighting the spectre of a problem. And so the adrenaline that rushes through your brain gears you up for a fight that doesn’t exist.
When your body finally realizes there isn’t something to fight or run from, you’re left with all of this adrenaline building up potential energy, and your body can’t handle sitting around and being still. This starts either nervous twitching or paralysis, as the energy you’ve just built up being ready for the fight or flight needs to get out. So it does by random movements or extreme tension.
How can I help?
So now that you know what a person is going through during a panic attack, how can you help someone who is experiencing one? The first course of action is reassurement. Find a potential spot to comfort the person having the attack and rub them there – like a shoulder or their back. This eases tension and helps provide a sense of safety.
Next, if they aren’t hyperventilating, give them something to eat while telling them that everything is alright. It’s a psychological thing, but eating means that we are in a secure place where there are no threats, so if you begin to snack on something it tricks the mind into realizing that you’re in a safe place.
The next thing is to make sure they’ve taken their medication, as many people with panic attacks have some form of medicine they take during an attack to help calm them down.
So now you have some of the tools to help identify and assist when someone is having a panic attack. If they seem scary and confusing to watch, just imagine how it must be to have one, and know that even attempting to soothe the person and help can be such a relief when going through an attack. So no matter what, if you decide to help, thank you.