You may have heard about it, know of someone who experiences it, or have experienced it yourself, but what exactly is a panic attack?
In my experience, it’s when you feel unable to control a stressful or confusing situation, and the worry reaches a point of sheer panic. Your body reacts by becoming completely overwhelmed and descending into a spiral of uncontrollable symptoms.
Beyond Blue defines a panic attack as a symptom of Panic Disorder, in which someone experiences panic attacks that are recurrent and disabling. It is not uncommon for someone to experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives, but in that case, it is not seen as Panic Disorder. Panic attacks and Panic Disorder are usually accompanied by one or more mental illnesses. e.g Anxiety.
Having a panic attack is probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever had to endure, in my entire life. Panic attacks can come in many forms, at any time, and will differ from person to person. I’ve had panic attacks brought on from low lighting, in places like restaurants or outdoor bars at dusk. I’ve had them from high-stress situations like flying, confrontation, or being in a hospital. And I’ve had them completely randomly from things like having my nails done, or sitting in the lounge room of my boyfriend’s house.
Panic and Anxiety won’t wait until a more convenient time to show up, they don’t hold back in front of others, or in public, and will unleash their wrath just about anywhere they please. Travel is certainly no exception to this, and sometimes can increase the risk of a panic attack, because of the unfamiliarity of the journey/destination. But those with anxiety and/or panic disorder, and a love for travel, will know that nothing is greater than taking the risk to challenge your limitations with travel, and discovering just how well you can cope.
Panic attacks aren’t always loud and obvious, complete with hyperventilating and crying and worrying that you can’t breathe; even though I’ve been to that show plenty of times. Sometimes they seem minuscule on the outside, like flighty or distant behaviour, and a general unease. And other times, they are completely silent on the outside. Like nothing is really going on, except that the person panicking is no longer chatty. No matter the timing of it all, or the symptoms displayed to onlookers, a panic attack usually has five stages:
- Onset –
This is the very beginning of the panic attack, where the person is usually wondering “Am I panicking?” A time when they’re slowly becoming more and more overwhelmed with their situation, whatever it may be.
- Realisation –
This is the part when they realise, yes, I am well and truly panicking and I’m not too sure how to turn back. This stage comes with a lot of self-coping mechanisms like rubbing hands or fingers together, fiddling with something they’re holding. Extended deep breathing, and a few looks around at the situation at hand, to see the quickest escape option usually follow. More than likely, this stage will also come with a few light tears, or soft/silent streaming crying because the person will be panicking that they are about to have a panic attack.
- Elevation –
This is the stage where things go from a 5 to a 5000 in about 0.4 seconds. When the person panicking decides that they are well and truly unequipped to deal with the situation at hand and that the breathing techniques have done nothing to calm them. In an obvious panic attack, this is the part where the hyperventilating comes in, the awkward arms reaching out and grabbing anything, and the sheer panic, stricken across their face can be seen. In a silent or less obvious panic attack, this is where the person becomes incredibly distant and more or less unreachable.
- Continuity –
Continuity is one of the most unpredictable stages of any panic attack because it determines the length. I’ve experienced smaller panic attacks, which only last a few minutes. But I’ve also endured the ones that hang around for hours. Usually, a panic attack will reach its peak within 10 minutes, and last for half an hour, but that’s not the truth for everyone.
- Exhaustion –
Truly exactly what you’d think, pure and complete exhaustion. I explain this feeling to someone who doesn’t know of anxiety or panic attacks as that strange ‘come down’ feeling you have after someone jumps out and scares you. You know the one where you’ve got to return to your body after you’ve been scared straight out of it? That one, accompanied by the feeling you’ve just hiked 10km, and haven’t slept for 48 hours. Panicking brings exhaustion in all of its forms, and it can take an extraordinarily long time to get over it.
To others, a panic attack might seem completely over the top. Something that hadn’t needed to of happened, because the threat is non-existent or minuscule. That’s where those of us differ between feeling scared and panicking, to actually having a panic attack and losing all self-control. Panicking is not something to be romanticised. It’s not tragic beauty. It is a mental illness, felt and experienced by around five percent of Australians alone.
During a panic attack, of any kind, there are so many symptoms that can be felt. Some of which I know exist from experience can be:
- Loss of breath/ Hyperventilating
- Warm, tingling pain in the face
- Numbness of fingers, legs, arms, or face
- Slight loss of vision; as if things have gotten a lot brighter
- Slowness; as if things are moving slower than you are
- Flighty behaviour/becoming jumpy
- Lack of ability to concentrate
- Loss of hearing; plenty of soft, high pitched noises can be heard
- A feeling of outer-body experience
- A loss of reality
- The inability to control your strength; gripping people or objects as hard as possible without knowing it.
As I mentioned earlier, panicking will look and feel different to each individual; no two peoples experiences will be exactly the same. There is a distinct difference to being terrified of something, and having a panic attack. It is super important for those of us who do experience panic attacks to reach out for help and to practice measures that help us avoid them, or at least ensure each one is less and less severe. See our resources and helplines page for examples.
And for those of you who haven’t and probably won’t experience a panic attack, this information is also important for you. In case you have a loved one with Panic Disorder, who you can better understand. Or to help you notice when someone around you is extraordinarily uncomfortable. Education and awareness will always be one of the greatest saviours in my opinion.
Following this article will be a piece on how to help a loved one when they are experiencing a panic attack. So if you’re wondering how to help someone you know, or if you know of ways someone can help you during a panic attack, look out for the publication of this next piece.