A deadly heat grips my chest. The warm blood rises upward. My mind stops. I’m dying. The second hand sounds like a beating drum. That’s the only sound I hear. Faces disappear. Thoughts disappear. Air becomes thick. My vision becomes tunneled. When will it end. Probably never. I’m dying. I’m dying.
To those who have never experienced anxiety, it is nearly impossible to describe. So little is understood by society as a whole surrounding mental illness, especially anxiety based disorders. It can leave you breathless and immobile. It can affect your memory, your relationships, and your eating habits. It can occur at any time.
Most recently I had a panic attack after watching the movie “Lucy”. I liked the movie and was captivated by the special effects. The story line wasn’t great. Nothing too special. I stood up and could barely walk. I forgot where I was. My friends were talking to me but I could hardly hear what they were saying. I had one of them drive for me. The panic attack lasted about 30 minutes. I thought it was going to last forever. I thought I was going to die.
Often anxiety comes on randomly. There seems to be no reason for it. All I know is my entire body and mind goes from calm and normal, to the ultimate Flight response. I feel like I am in danger and don’t know why. Most of the time, I can’t calm myself down. It’s crippling and it’s scary.
Sometimes the anxiety is caused by an outside factor. A few months ago I was stuck in an elevator with 18 people for nearly an hour. It grew incredibly hot and we had no idea when we were getting out. In that small space, I was seized by ultimate panic and hyperventilated the whole time until the fire department was able to get us out.
What is most frustrating about anxiety is the lack of control that one feels. One may recognize that the stressor is not rational (like having anxiety after a movie), but they are unable to escape it. Often, there is very little someone can do to stop a panic attack. This can be very aggravating when someone who doesn’t understand anxiety tells someone to “calm down” or says “it’s not that bad.” We probably already know it’s not that bad, but we are having a physiological reaction that must run its course before we can calm down.
This summer I went canoeing with my friends. My boat started taking on water and there was too many people in the boat. To anyone else, not the end of the world. I knew, rationally, that I was going to be okay. My body, on the other hand, thought I was going to drown. As much as I would have liked to be like “Calm down, it’s not that bad”, my nervous system had other plans.
Anxiety can be embarrassing. The person may already feel out of control, and if others tell them to simply get a grip, that just convinces them that they are helpless even more. What that person needs is for you to LISTEN TO WHAT THEY NEED IN THAT MOMENT. Most people with anxiety have a sort of routine when it comes to panic attacks. For me, I need space and air. I also need someone to tell me things will be okay. For other people, they may want to be completely alone and for you not to talk to them. Some people need a hug. Others need to run or kick or scream. Everyone is different. Be patient and be supportive. Don’t question what they are going through. Don’t tell them to get over it. In the moment, they feel like they can’t.
Anxiety can affect one’s everyday life. When I go on a long car or boat ride, I consider how I would escape in case of an emergency. Every time. I never take the elevator. I’ve told my coworkers what to do in case I have a panic attack. I know not to drive my car when I have anxiety. When I get sick, I almost always think I have a terminal illness. When I go to bars or small parties, I get tunnel vision. Sometimes I start to itch on my hands. Sometimes I overheat.
I know that anxiety may seem like a bizarre concept to some people. If you have a strong fear of something, imagine yourself completely surrounded by it. Covered in spiders. Caught in an airplane that is about to crash. That grip of utter terror. Now imagine that feeling hitting you like a ton of bricks, brought on by something random. Walking down the street. Being on a boat. Watching a movie. Having a drink at a bar.
As with most mental illnesses, what people really need is compassion and patience. You may not understand what they are going through. It may even scare you. The best you can do is be there for them. Listen. And learn.