Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere. You might be lying down relaxing and watching television and suddenly you become short of breath. It feels like you can’t get enough air into your lungs so you start gasping for breath. When you fail to get enough air in you start to panic and your heart begins to race. Within the space of a minute your heart beats so rapidly you fear you’re going to have a heart attack, or maybe you’re already having one.
And you’re all alone.
It doesn’t matter how many times it happens, you have the same fear of dying with every attack spent on your own, and each and every time you find yourself reaching for the phone and contemplating calling an ambulance, or at least you want your phone as close to you as possible in case it gets worse.
For me, these attacks sometimes go on for no more than ten minutes, but I had a couple recently that lasted for two hours. I stayed in this state of loneliness and fear for all that time, unable to calm myself down with anything. You do all the suggested things, breathing exercises, YouTube videos for relaxation, distracting yourself with something, calling a friend, even. But often none of these things calm you down, or perhaps they calm you down for a moment or two before your heart starts racing all over again.
And then there are the attacks that are brought on by circumstances.
For the past couple of months I have been attending the University of Athens, in Greece, studying the Greek language. I started the course with a lot of joy and hope, but soon I realised how very difficult it is and started thinking everyone in my class was way ahead of me and I couldn’t seem to get anything right. When I was at university in England I had what they call an ‘Inclusive Learning Plan,’ which included my lecturers being told not to ask me any questions in class due to my anxiety. But I don’t have that in Greece, so in the beginning my teachers here were coming to me for answers to questions in Greek left right and centre. For the first couple of weeks we were only studying the alphabet which I became familiar with very quickly and I did not have a problem answering the questions. But as the material and the questions became more difficult I started experiencing severe anxiety over the idea that I would be asked these questions in front of fifteen other students.
Eventually I decided to say something to my teachers about my anxiety. One day I waited for one of them to arrive in our class and I planned to take her aside and say something. But even the very idea of this made me panic and so I began shaking and sweating in my seat, before finally seeing her outside and bursting into tears and having to go to the bathroom to calm myself down. In the end I informed all three of my teachers about my issues with the questions and it was agreed that- for now- they would leave me alone during classes. But they didn’t listen. I went into my next lesson feeling a lot less anxious than usual after having expressed my needs and then found that they still asked me a whole bunch of questions, and that’s when the public panic attacks began.
I would be getting myself worked up about the lesson the second I got to university in the morning, panicking about not having all the answers, panicking about panicking. By the time I reached the classroom I couldn’t catch my breath from fear. I would normally be ok at the very start of the lesson, for some reason, but half way through (and certainly influenced by my second coffee of the day during the break) I would find myself starting to shake. The shaking would be followed by clammy hands, and then a strong tingling sensation in my arms and hands, and then my heart would go faster and faster until I could barely sit in my seat without gasping for breath or feeling I would fall off of my chair and completely pass out.
In one way I hope that no one notices, as in that terrible state you don’t need to feel embarrassed on top of all of the other symptoms. But in another way I hope that the teacher notices so that they at least leave me alone and don’t attempt to ask me any questions while I’m in the worst possible state to answer them.
I always contemplate getting up and going to the toilet to calm down, but I am so physically destroyed that I cannot stand.
Eventually the attack passes, and a lot quicker than when I am alone, most likely because I have the lesson to be distracted by. But then every single day of the week I have to anticipate the next time, and the next time and the next time, and so I live in a constant state of fear over the concept of expecting another attack at any moment.
My advice to others- and I’m sure there are many of you- who suffer from these disabling attacks, is always to remember that panic attacks cannot lead to any physical complications. I know from personal experience that it is very hard to remember this in the midst of an attack, but just keep in mind that a panic attack cannot lead to cardiac arrest or a heart attack, and it cannot lead to any damage to your heart or lungs.
Also know that during these times you are not alone and there are many others in the world, like myself, who suffer with you.