It happens for no reason, any reason.
There’s no precursor, no symptoms or warnings. You just suddenly can’t breathe.
It’s like someone flipped a switch inside of you that tells you how to function. You’re drowning inside your own body and nobody understands what’s happening. You are the only person in the entire world who has ever felt like this.
Suddenly you wonder if maybe breathing is an automatic instinct for everyone else in the world except for you. Maybe your brain wasn’t built to remember to automatically convert oxygen into carbon dioxide. What if you just stop breathing altogether? (You breathe heavier, with more strain.) What if this is the moment you die?
Do you know what that’s like? To regularly experience the sentiment of what if this is the moment I legitimately die?
You feel like you’re never going to get enough space or enough air, no matter where or how far you go. You could get out of your bed or get out of your house or get out of the restaurant or even go to outer space. There still would not be enough room for you to feel like the world isn’t collapsing in on you.
You simultaneously feel like you don’t have enough space in the world, while feeling like there’s too much space inside your own head and you’re never going to fully connect with anyone ever again. People will tell you that they are there for you and that they understand, but they are millions of miles away, even if they are sitting next to you with their hand in your lap.
You tell yourself that no one has ever died from a panic attack. You remember everything you’ve heard about them from other people: they are normal, they are awful, everyone has them, they end. But you can’t believe yours will ever end, because it is so horrible and must be so much worse than whatever anyone else claims to have experienced. You will be stuck like this forever, inside your own head and unable to see what is right in front of you.
People tell you silly things like “Just relax!” or “You’ll be okay” as if you hadn’t thought of these things already and you just needed someone to remind you. Of course you want to relax! Of course you want to be okay! But in this moment your heart is beating faster than any heart should ever beat, and your mind is going places that you didn’t think you’d ever be capable of conceptualizing.
You are separated from everyone around you. Not physically, but on another level that you were not aware of up until this point. They are there, and you are here. Your mind is the only thing that matters right now, and your mind is falling into a dark pit with no way to crawl out.
And then there is a pause and the slightest bit of hope. The smallest glimmer of normality in the midst of the most terrifying onrush of thoughts and feelings you’ve ever had. Grasp onto this feeling, even if it’s only there for a second. Remember what it’s like to not feel like this.
You remember what it’s like to sit in a movie theater or stand on a train or sit at the table with your family and not be afraid. Remember that eventually you will be sitting or standing somewhere again and you will not feel like you are dying. Take deep breaths, and focus solely on letting air into your body and out of your body.
You tell yourself that other people have dealt with this too. Other people have had an inexplicable instant where they think they are disappearing and all hope is lost – for no reason at all. Maybe they’re depressed and maybe they’re extremely content. Maybe they’re a little bit unusual or maybe they’re the most boring person in the world. It happens to so many different people, regardless of who they are or what they’ve been through. This feeling can happen to anyone.
Panic attacks don’t look at gender or race or age or social status or wealth. They just come and go as they please, interrupting your life for a few hellish minutes or hours, potentially one time or potentially several times. But the more you hold onto those hopeful glimmers and the more you breathe, the less powerful these panic attacks become.
When a panic attack starts closing in on you, remember where you are. Look around at the people or things surrounding you. Actually look at them and pay attention to the details. Listen to what people are saying and what noises the world is making. Remember that you are very much here and very much alive, and remember to try and keep your mind with you. You can’t forever banish a panic attack, but you can keep it at bay long enough to keep going and keep living. And most importantly, remember you are not the only one who has ever felt this feeling.