Anxiety attacks are common and they can occur for reasons such as stress, triggers, mental health difficulties and external events causing pressure on the individual. Equally they may appear seemingly out of nowhere, for no identifiable reason, giving their victim no chance to prepare or avoid them. They are experienced in many different ways some of which may be unique to the individual. Attacks can also vary greatly in the intensity, the amount of time they last and in the distress that is experienced by the individual and in the resulting consequences. They are usually terrifying to the person experiencing them and may also be difficult to watch.
Some people prefer to ignore someone in this state while some are willing and able to help. Others want to help but just don’t know how. There is not yet enough help and education about dealing with and helping people through anxiety attacks out there. It would make a huge difference to people like me if more people could recognise an anxiety attack and know how to help. I hope that reading this helps people to understand more and be there for others.
My own severe attacks tend to occur alongside bad episodes of my bipolar illness and are sometimes one of the first indicators of me not coping. But they also can come from nowhere. I suffer from both generalized anxiety and severe acute anxiety attacks. Anxiety often stops me sleeping and leaving the house and I fear acute attacks in public. Sometimes my anxiety literally chokes me like there is something pulling tight round my neck and pulling. I can’t swallow and then I start to drown in my own saliva, I swallow and this produces more. I feel like I am going to drown.
Other times a snake wraps itself tight around my chest then it feels like heavy books and stones are laid on top of me on top of each other until I am completely crushed. There are times where I start obsessing over little things, I feel paranoid and scared or I feel I am about to faint.
Finally there are the episodes where the world starts to spin and I can’t connect with anyone. I can’t communicate that something is wrong, I lose awareness of space and time, I freeze. I cry, I shake or I try to run from it if I still can. These are just some examples of my experiences of acute anxiety.
My strategies to cope with these awful experiences are to avoid them where possible though I know I can’t live like that all of the time. I refuse to give up so I keep taking risks knowing it could end in disaster. I do however limit the risks by mainly going to places that I know well and that I have usually felt safe at. I seek out my “safe people”: these are mainly my closest friends, my health support workers and then just some people who care and just get it. When I do have to go somewhere strange I try to have someone safe with me and I also always have an exit strategy. It’s a strange way to live especially for someone as unorganised as me who really doesn’t like limits. It’s frustrating because I used to be able to do so much more.
Of course, even when my safeguards in place it can go wrong. I can’t always prevent attacks in public. Tears I couldn’t stop. Body shaking all over, heart racing, head spinning like the sky is falling in. Chest and throat tight, tight, too tight.. Get me some air please. Hold my hand I’m so scared. Take me away from others don’t let them all see. Help me be safe. Tell me I’m safe again and again. Breathe with me. Help me. Make it stop. It will it will help me calm it. Breathe again. No fainting don’t let me faint. Don’t let me go…
And then…then it starts to ease. I still shake. But I look at you. I know you again though I may not know exactly what happened before. I am likely to be on the point of exhaustion. I’m vulnerable here. I am scared. I have no fight left. Sit with me if you can and get me a drink. Food if possible as I will be weak. Please reassure me and please help me get somewhere safe to sleep. Call others if you need to. Stay in touch. Little things like that. You can make a difference. You can help. You might get me through one of my most vulnerable moments safely and you might be able to do this in a way that makes me feel safe and cared about and like I matter. And you might begin to understand.