My friend Emily and I talk about a lot of emotional things, and we’ve been friends for years, but I still didn’t know some of these details.
This is another somewhat devastating example of how hard it is to talk about mental health, even with close friends.
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.
Emily used the Panic Attack Survey to share her experience. A couple of her responses have two paragraphs that seem a bit disconnected from one another. This is because after filling out the Panic Attack Survey the first time, she remembered a few more things that she wanted to add.
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?
Since I was a kid, I’ve had many, many night terrors that I am only semi-conscious for. As an adult, however, I experienced my first fully-conscious panic attack several years into an abusive romantic relationship.
What do your panic attacks generally feel like?
The night terrors usually start out with a feeling of suffocation, and the sound of someone screaming, far off. As my heart begins to race, the screaming gets closer and closer, until the two realities slam together and I find myself (the screaming one) in a standing position, sometimes in a different room, often trying to climb out a window or get outside somehow. The conscious panic-attack was an intensified variation on this theme. My heart felt like it was going to explode. I couldn’t breathe; it was like something heavy was sitting on my chest and my diaphragm was stuck in an “up” position, unable to draw deep breaths. I remember lying on my bed, looking toward the window of my room, paralyzed. I thought I was dying. I felt exhausted for days afterward.
Have you ever had a panic attack while running?
Not while running, but–particularly during that toxic romantic relationship–sometimes I felt the beginnings of something while I was driving. This feeling of dread, like it might happen at any moment. That’s not to say that I never had emotional breakdowns while running, or especially, right before a big race. I was often so agitated before races that I would be crying in our warm-up tent, shaking and unable to focus on what anyone was talking to me about.
How have panic attacks affected your training?
I don’t race very much anymore, and when I do, it needs to be distances I never raced in high school or college. The anxiety around racing, for so many years, did a number on my system and the only way I can approach racing these days is to remove ALL stakes, otherwise I get traumatic flashbacks. Because back in the day, when there was so much pressure to perform as one of the region’s best athletes, when coaches routinely dismissed my health issues and injuries (My left metatarsal broke in lap 3 of a 3200m, and I was still told to finish the race so I could break the meet record), and when your entire teenage/college sense of self-worth is wrapped up in being able to win the approval of the adults around you, I didn’t just get pre-race jitters….it was full-blown, existential panic. With all that baggage, it’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve been able to re-establish a healthy relationship with running.
Sometimes when we’d travel for meets, I wouldn’t get any sleep at all because I was afraid that the moment I dropped off, I’d tear the place apart trying to “escape” or “get air” and no one would ever want to room with me again. I’d strap a flashlight or my phone to my hand so that if I panicked in the night, there’d be a chance I might have the wherewithal to turn one of them on so I wouldn’t hurt myself on furniture. It was so unpredictable though that it just added more stress to an already stressful situation (racing). With all of the anxiety I have around running, it’s probably a wonder I even do it at all….but in its purest form, I love it. There’s nothing better than dashing like a fleet-footed deer down a forest trail surrounded by brilliant orange foliage on a fall day, or exploring the cobbled streets of a foreign city in the early morning mist, seeing it before the monuments and sidewalks become crowded with tourists. So, yeah…running seems to be a catalyst for some of my highest highs, but also some of my lowest, panic-stricken lows.
How has managing your panic attack morphed over time?
Considering that I had no awareness of what was happening–or the poor treatment I unconsciously condoned, which may have led to the attacks in the first place–I think I’ve come a long way. It started with being able to articulate the experience and triggers, and the more I shared the stories, the less fearsome the monster was. Now it’s a question of learning to establish and protect healthy boundaries, avoiding unhealthy people, situations, and mindsets, and being an advocate for myself. Easier said than done. Yet, I’ve noticed a decrease in the terrors/attacks since starting on this journey of self-advocacy.
What has helped you manage them most successfully?
Prayer, art, reading, nature. Being present and realigning my priorities each time I start to give too much power and significance to the things that trigger my reactions. It’s cliche to say it, but being mindful (an old coach of mine would say, “Cognizant”) of the way things make me feel, and not overanalyzing them. Some things don’t need to be “logicked” to be disarmed; they can just be walked away from. I’m trying not to internally interrogate myself so much anymore.
Need to add “writing” to that list, duh. Prayer, art, writing, reading, nature. I had a coach who I’m pretty sure picked up on that last one. If I was getting nervous during a conversation she’d move it outside. Interestingly, the more internal work I’ve done–either through therapy or spiritual mentoring–the fewer panic attacks and night terrors I’ve experienced. So, something is working, even if I can’t perceive it on a conscious level. The more I unpack, the more deeply I examine my past traumas, following trails and processing my ingrained responses to various stimuli, the more something seems to get released. It’s weird, but freeing. I’m definitely not all the way there, yet, but it gives me hope of a future that is different from my past.
What has been helpful for the people around you to do during a panic attack?
Responding with loving non-judgement. I tend to overanalyze my past actions and feel embarrassment/responsible for things that are out of my control. Anything to lessen the stigma is helpful. Sometimes I get unhelpful remarks from older adults about how I should have “grown out of” these things, and then I wonder what’s wrong with me. And honestly, I don’t want anxiety attacks to ever become the “norm” in our society. But I think talking about them openly SHOULD be normalized, and learning about our past traumas and doing the hard inner work to heal traumatic wounds is something we could all stand to do a little more of in our lives.
To add to how important it is for others to act lovingly nonjudgmental: There’s nothing more embarrassing than coming to your senses in the middle of the night on a fun camping trip with friends to discover that you’ve clawed through the side of your only tent and scared the living daylights out of everyone within a quarter-mile radius thanks to your blood-curdling screams (true story). And nothing makes you feel more ridiculous than having to wish your cabin mates at cross country camp, “Good night, and good luck…” in case you unwittingly traumatize them in the night by trying to break down a door in a blind panic, or eerily stand over their bed in a trance (unfortunately, also a true story).
What advice, support or encouragement would you offer someone else struggling with panic attack?
Stories help us make meaning out of the random, wonderful, terrifying, confusing events of our lives. Find a way to tell your story, in all its gruesome, flawed beauty. The millions of people who struggle with mental health issues need to hear it, and need to know they’re not alone.
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.