I met Kami during cross country (or track, I don’t remember) in high school. We were on rival teams in our conference. I use “rivals” because technically it’s true, but really, her team always beat mine.
Kami and I have talked about a lot of things over the years, but this is the first time we’ve talked about panic attacks. Which is a shame because I assume that’s common—for friends to both be struggling with the same thing but never discuss it openly.
So, I’m trying to do my part to help us all talk about our panic attacks more openly. Because after my Instagram post, where I mentioned struggling with panic attacks and it affecting my training, a lot of people reached out saying they share my experience.
So let’s talk about it.
Kami emailed me the bulk of her story and then used the Panic Attack Survey to fill in more details. If you’d like to contribute to the project, the survey is here: Panic Attack Survey. If you’d like to remain anonymous—it’s 100 percent okay if you do—please note it on the survey.
What’s your general panic attack story?:
My first panic attack happened when I was 19. Looking back, I can list off so many things that could’ve triggered it, but at the time, I thought for sure I was having a heart attack. It was 2004, I had never even heard the term, but it hit me like a freight train. It was like I had tunnel vision, everything was blurry and unfocused around the edges, I remember just sitting in the bathtub, staring at a shampoo bottle, thinking I was dying. It was over in less than 5 minutes, and I didn’t tell a soul.
I didn’t have another one for about a year. I had gotten out of a bad relationship, and had a handful within a week of each other. Again, still no idea what they were.
They started out like the first one, and it’s like my body is just screaming “Something’s wrong! Something’s wrong!” without trying to figure out what it is, so then my brain starts listing all the things that could go wrong, starting with the most mundane things all the way up to being fired from my job and people I love dying.
I get claustrophobic, everything and anything feels like it’s too close to me, but it never even occurs to me to move. My heart starts pounding, my skin feels like it’s on fire, and my vision is blurry. No matter how hard or fast I breathe, I can never get enough air in.
I had to go to the doctor for something unrelated shortly after, and off-handedly mentioned them. He meant well, but was completely unequipped. I could see him getting uneasy as I was describing them, and remember him saying something about not drinking too much caffeine and awkwardly shuffling to the door.
After he walked out, his nurse came back in with some pamphlets. There still wasn’t a lot of info in them, but it was something. She gave me a hug, told me about a few medical websites that I could find more information on, and told me to call and ask for her if I ever needed anything.
How I’ve dealt with them has evolved over time, and nothing is fool-proof, but I think for me, right now, I’m in a good place with it. I’m very lucky in that I’ve never felt like I’ve needed medication. I don’t get them enough for me to feel comfortable with it, but I would consider it if need be.
“I tried to frame this as something that my 19-year-old self would’ve hoped to find, scrolling endlessly. Something that would’ve made her feel like she wasn’t going crazy, like she wasn’t alone.”
I joke that I can’t remember a thing if it’s not on my Google calendar, but it’s true. I have a calendar completely dedicated to self care, and make sure that I have enough of it on there each week. It encompasses everything from scheduling 8 hours of sleep every night (doesn’t often happen, but I do the best I can), to reading for an hour or two.
When I know I’m going to have a hectic week, I add in baths, time for going for a walk, meditation, or even taking a nap. Sometimes even just seeing it on my schedule makes all the difference.
I’ve talked to a therapist before, and it helped immensely. Meditation is always something I fall back on. Journaling. Avoiding triggers, and being unapologetic about it. That one took me a long time.
I was always so nervous about ‘missing out’, or people expecting something, or for me to be somewhere, that I was constantly doing and doing and letting ‘Future Kami’ be on cleanup duty and calling in to work and telling my boss that I was sick, when really just the idea of getting off the couch gave me heart palpitations.
Honestly listening to my body. If it’s telling me something is off, taking steps to fix it. Learning something new, or finding a new hobby.
Over the years I’ve unsuccessfully tried to teach myself how to crochet and killed more than a few plants, but I’ve also learned a lot.
Listening to music, and finding something that really moves you, even if no one else knows who they are. For me, concerts are absolutely self care, and I’ve been to a few that have probably saved me.
I also, thanks to one guitar player’s Instagram, learned enough tips and tricks that I’ve stopped killing my plants.
It’s ever- changing. It’s two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes some things will help more than others. Sometimes some people will help more than others.
We’ve come a long way in mental health since 2004. It’s a topic of conversation. These days, if you ask a kid what a panic attack is, odds are, it’s something they’ve heard of, even if they can’t describe it exactly. We still have a long way to go, but we’re not at the starting blocks anymore.
I tried to frame this as something that my 19 year old self would’ve hoped to find, scrolling endlessly. Something that would’ve made her feel like she wasn’t going crazy, like she wasn’t alone. Like it’s not the end of the world, it’s just a new part of it. I think I nailed it.
What has helped you manage your attacks most successfully?:
Basic ground work with a therapist, meditation and journaling have all been helpful. Learning how to recognize my triggers and avoid/work through them. Music.
What has been helpful for the people around you to do during a panic attack?:
Be present, but not close. I feel too claustrophobic as it is– someone touching me makes it so much worse. Honestly I prefer them to not even be in the same room as me, but close by if I do need help.
What advice, support or encouragement would you offer someone else struggling with panic attacks?:
Don’t be ashamed. I spent years never talking about them, and when I did, I was so shocked the amount of people I knew that suffer through them. You are absolutely not alone.
Be clear with what you need. Your friends and family want to help, but it’s completely out of their element. Have a conversation about how you feel during a PA, and what you need from them if they happen to be there. It’s so much easier to have it when you’re feeling good than trying to articulate it during one.
This Mental Health Series on panic attacks was created to help us all feel less alone in our anxiety. If you’d like to contribute to the project, please submit your own story here: Panic Attack Survey.