The first time I experienced a panic attack I was 11 years old. I had come home early from school that day with a headache and some other physical symptoms I now know were anxiety, and I had gone upstairs to have a nap before dinner. My mum came to wake me up when it was time to eat, but I must have been in the wrong phase of my sleep cycle because I awoke disoriented, thinking it was the morning. We’ve all been there when we wake up not quite sure what’s going on. So I thought it was the morning, and when my mum told me it was time to eat I responded asking about breakfast. There was some confused back and forth with my mum trying to convince me it was in fact dinner time, and still the day before, and I suddenly spiralled into my first panic attack. I don’t remember a whole lot of the details while it was happening, but I do remember how terrifying it was. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe; I simply could not get the air into my lungs. I felt faint, and sick, I thought my legs couldn’t hold me up. I don’t know if I had the thought that can come alongside panic attacks where you think you’re going to die, but I knew something was very, very wrong; I definitely thought I was going to faint. Somehow I ended up at the bottom of the stairs, gasping for air and sipping water out of a bottle cap (I think that was the only way I could manage to do it?) as it subsided, and I can still recall the exhaustion after that first one and how foreign it felt. My mum suggested it had been a panic attack, and at that point I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea they would become such a huge part of my life.
I have had many panic attacks since this day. I’ve also had some anxiety attacks, which are more prolonged and less intense, and I experience sensory overload too as an autistic young person. Sometimes sensory overload meltdowns and panic attacks can be hard for me to distinguish, and sometimes they overlap or morph into the other, but it’s helpful sometimes to figure out which is which as it can aid in the recovery process both long and short term – for example in a panic attack changing my jumper probably isn’t going to help and may not even be a possibility, but with sensory overload changing the material of my clothing or my environment may help it to subside or avoid it altogether when I feel it building. This year I have felt the strongest mentally overall that I have in a very long time, but I still have panic attacks. Some months I have none; others I have many. For example in May I had seven.
It’s important to note that while I find the label panic attacks useful, it is a pathologised word. That means there is a certain medical connotation attached to it. However panic attacks are a total overload of our nervous systems; an explosion of tension and anxiety. We cannot talk about expressions of mental distress without recognising that they are often responses to a traumatic and stressful world, whether immediate results of a specific trigger or a build up over time. For example in May I was dealing with exam stress, difficult atmospheres at home, grief for my safe place, and more time on my hands. These all contributed to my spike in panic attacks I have no doubt. Other times I may make it to the other side of a stressful event and then experience panic attacks, almost like a hangover of emotions. It’s not an individual failure, but an understandable reaction to a difficult world. You are not broken for experiencing anxiety. You are not shameful for having panic attacks.
I am a firm believer that to appreciate life fully we need to be able to laugh, even at the bad stuff. There are certain events surrounding some of my panic attacks that I find kind of hilarious looking back on and that helps me to deal with any embarrassment or regret surrounding them I may have. For example, I have terrible stage fright (despite being an actress, ironic I know). Before the final dress rehearsal for Bugsy Malone – my first show in a proper theatre – I had a panic attack in the wings. I was crouched behind a prop box in heels I could barely walk in and my tailored sparkly dress writhing my legs in pain and sobbing without air. It was a pretty desperate moment, though the juxtaposition itself is amusing looking back. The next thing I remember is a stagehand saying into their walkie talkie ‘can someone please come and remove the fire hazard from the wings?’. I was the fire hazard because I couldn’t move myself out of the way, and I was carried back to my dressing room by my director. Talk about a diva moment. Looking back I cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of the experience.
That particular panic attack also showed me how loving people can be. I hope that someday everyone experiencing mental health issues gets to experience the pure love and support that I did that day. I had to go on stage just after recovering to do a mic check. I was so exhausted – my bones were heavy; the exhaustion of a panic attack travels to your core and can make you feel like your body isn’t your own – so all I could do was stand centre stage. The rest of the cast sat in the audience as I weakly sang ‘My Name is Tallulah’. Half way through the song I raised my eyes and saw that they were all swaying along, waving their hands in the air; at the end of the song they stood up and cheered and called out encouragement. It was beautiful. No one judged, no one whispered or pointed. They rallied and supported me. That’s what we all deserve.
Another amusing panic memory was when I fell on my face in the mud on a rainy day trying to escape prying eyes and instead drawing them all to me; again, it wasn’t as embarrassing or well remembered as I feared it would be. Or when my teacher gave me their scarf to wrap around me and help me feel safer and I immediately snotted into it – I got to keep that for a while rather than immediately returning it. Or the time I went to get help while having a panic attack but there was already a girl in the office having a panic attack and it became like a queue for a very strange and unwanted product.
I’ve been alone on bathroom floors, writhed my legs, hit my chest, backed myself into literal corners to try and feel a bit safer, thought I was going to die, taken off most of my clothes because I thought my skin was going to burn, and just general cried and made weird sounds while trying to breathe. Point of all of this is – I survived. And each one has become a little easier to recover from. The worst a panic attack will do is make you pass out; it cannot kill you. Remember that – it cannot kill you. If you are having one, it is horrible and tiring and painful, but you are safe. And if you are with someone experiencing one it’s ok to remind them of that; if you can recognise what it is and call it what it is. Tell them it’s a panic attack and that they are safe. Often it helps not to try and suppress it either but rather to ride it out, let it be. Because they are not the end of the world, but they are super scary and it’s ok to recognise that too.
I hope that maybe reading this has helped someone feel a little less alone in their experience. If you’d like a more in depth guide on how I deal with my panic attacks let me know in the comments below! Sending love and support to you all today! Xx