I had my first panic attack in a cafe in Barcelona. I was writing emails to my friends and family back home when I got really light headed, my heart started to race, and I couldn’t breathe. I am awesome at ordering food in Spanish. I am not so great at explaining to a waitress that my heart is pounding and that it feels as though I have an elephant on my chest in Spanish. It would probably be a lot of adding “o’s” to the ends of English words and shrugging my shoulders.
My brain screamed to order a water like it was going to fix whatever was wrong with my body. I called for the waitress, asked for a water, and put my head in my hands. I hoped that if I closed my eyes for a second the world around me would stop caving in. That maybe the noises wouldn’t be so loud and the other patrons wouldn’t feel so close. I lifted my head and opened my eyes, but the world was still pulsating. I was terrified.
I drank the water in one shaky handed shot and started fumbling to throw my laptop and my phone into my bag. I walked up to the register in what felt like a tunnel. I saw a little cake on a plate and asked the waitress if I could have it. She said sure, and I grabbed it, thinking that if water didn’t work that maybe food would. I paid my bill and stumbled down the block to my apartment.
“Just get home,” I kept telling myself, “You’ll be fine if you can just get home. Don’t stop for water. Don’t stop for food. Just get home.”
So I got home and walked the five flights up to my apartment. I laid on the bed in the living room and put on an episode of something I had downloaded before I had left for Spain. An episode of some franchise of the Real Housewives. I laid on that bed and tried to slow my breathing, but my brain and my heart were relentless.
“You don’t have any water, and you can’t drink the water from the faucet. What you need to be okay right now is water and you don’t have any. You’re going to die up here. Go ask a neighbor for water. She probably won’t give it to you because you look crazy. Maybe the people across the alley can help you. You don’t know anyone. You don’t speak the language. And you’re not ok. You’re going to die here alone.” This was my brain on a loop, and my thoughts were racing as fast as my pounding heart.
After an hour of this, I called a friend who came over and took me to the pharmacy. The pharmacist used one of those blood pressure reading machines to see what was going on. My blood pressure was fine, it was just my heart, which was still racing, but was starting to calm down.
At the time I had no idea what caused it. It would happen almost every day for the next month without warning and always at an inconvenient time. Like when I was trying to check in my bags for a Ryanair flight to Portugal. I drank three bottles of water, a gatorade, and a smoothie before I could get on the check in line with shaky, sweaty hands. I smiled at the flight attendant because I was so glad that the moment had passed, but also I told myself that if something happened to me, that if I passed out on the bag check in line, the flight attendant behind the counter would know what to do.
Panic attacks are terrifying, regardless of whether or not you know what’s causing them. And having them doesn’t make you a freak, even though it can feel like your body and your brain are turning against you.
Through trial and error , I found some things that have worked for me when I didn’t have medication and needed something to calm me down:
1. Drinking water
I don’t know if it’s the sipping of the water that regulates breathing, or if the introduction of water to the body actually slows your heart rate by lowering your blood pressure. But drinking water helps. If nothing else, it gives you something else to focus on.
2. Focus on your breathing
I know this is really hard, especially when your breathing pattern feels off. Then you might to start to focus on why your breathing is weird and that will make you panic more. But, I promise, slowing down your breathing and trying to take slow, deep breaths makes you feel so much better. I believe there is a method where you breathe in on a count of five, hold your breath for a count of five, and exhale for a count of five.
3. Listen to music and picture yourself in a relaxing place
Listen to soothing songs or sounds that put your mind somewhere else. I was freaking out on my flight to Portugal. The plane was one of those tiny commuter planes. The flight attendants were hitting the elbow of the guy next to me with their drink carts, that’s how tiny the plane was. But I put on some Fiona Apple (don’t judge me), closed my eyes, and pictured myself on a chaise lounge overlooking the pool and the ocean in the Bahamas. This helped so much that I put that song on repeat and listened to it for the entire hour and a half flight. It was like magic.
4. Remind yourself that nothing bad is going to happen
I think I’ve said this about ninety times at this point, but panic attacks are terrifying. You think you are going to die. But you are not. Remind yourself that the worst that is going to happen is that you will feel uncomfortable for a little while. Ok. You’ll feel really beyond uncomfortable for a little while. And even though you’re heart will race, and you feel like you can’t breathe, your heart won’t stop, and you won’t stop breathing. You will be fine and this will end. I promise.
5. Move around
During a panic attack, your body is in “fight or flight” mode. So you’re full of adrenaline, which adds to the amazing amount of discomfort. I have found that moving my body when it’s happening makes me feel better. If I can, I will walk around. This summer I walked through the streets of many an old Spanish city just walking off a panic attack. If you can’t walk around, pacing works too or shaking out your arms and hands. Any movement of your body that uses the adrenaline helps. Jumping, jiggling, whatever, just move.
6. Get yourself to a place where you feel safe
I realize this isn’t always feasible. Sometimes you have to make a safe place for yourself in a mind that isn’t feeling so safe at that moment. But if you can, excuse yourself from wherever you are and get yourself outside. Being in a larger space will be a little cooler than where you were (your body heat rises when you’re having a panic attack), and you’ll have some space to move around. Take a walk. Jump up and down. Pace. Whatever you need to do to move the adrenaline around and make yourself feel comfortable. Sometimes I’ll even excuse myself to go to the bathroom just to have a minute to get myself together if going outside or going home are not options.
Panic attacks are awful. They are uncomfortable and scary, and they make you feel crazy. But you’re not crazy. It is so important to do what you need to do to take care of yourself, regardless of how it looks to other people. They aren’t in your body, you are. You know how you feel, and you know what works for you. Remember, this is just an awful moment, and, like other awful moments, it will pass, and you will be fine. I promise.