When Panic Attacks Strike

This week I had my first panic attack in TEN YEARS.

And it freaked me the fuck out. So naturally I felt the need to write about it.

Not just because I feel like a lot of people don’t really understand what panic attacks actually are. But also because I think some would like to know how I managed to avoid them for a decade and why I seem to have had a bit of a relapse.

Oh and also because despite me thinking that there wasn’t really a mental health stigma anymore, there most definitely is.

I should start by saying I definitely feel out of my comfort zone writing this post. I never really wanted to be one of those whiny bloggers, moaning about my personal life. I tend have more of a ‘Fuck it, go to Thailand’ mentality.

Plus, I also worry that it’s almost trendy to talk about mental illness these days and I would hate anyone to think I’m writing this for the views. Which I admit I have thought about other bloggers in the past. Soz babes.

But whatever, blogging is my therapy so this is what I have to say, pal.

Carmel Bunkers, Barcelona

What Does A Panic Attack Feel Like?

If you’re not sure whether or not you’ve had a panic attack, you haven’t had one. It’s that simple, buddy.

Because when you have a panic attack you literally think you’re dying. I’ve had some where I’ve legit thought I was having a heart attack. Another where I thought my throat was closing up. Another where I thought I was going blind because of the tunnel vision. But all of them were accompanied by heart palpations, nausea, sweating, shaking and general overwhelming fear.

In my experience, there are some perceptions out there that having a panic attack is simply getting a bit flustered or being stressed. No, that’s stress. It’s not a panic attack.

A panic attack is pure terror.

Why Do Panic Attacks Happen?

Ok for the record, I’m not a doctor over here. So take everything I say with a pince of salt, innit.

But from what I’ve read it seems we don’t really know why panic attacks are a thing. They can happen for no reason at all or they can be triggered from an event or a certain area of your life.

But I think the key is to work out why you particulary are having them.

I had frequent panic attacks between the ages of 18 and 20. And I gradually worked out what was triggering mine.

The first time I had one, I was in the car with my family and I was in the back seat. I started to get car sickness, which I’d never had before, and because I was so confused about why I felt sick, it turned into my first panic attack.

My second one was at a gig in Brixton when I started feeling a bit faint, probably because I hadn’t drunk enough water and it was hot in there. But this was the one where panic attack that then took hold gave me tunnel vision and I had to leave the concert.

My third one was in the theatre. I’d just gotten ice cream in the interval and for some reason my throat felt funny. I suddenly panicked that I was allergic to the ice cream and it turned into an attack. I have zero allergies and have eaten ice cream all my life so there was literally no logic to this fear.

The connection? All were fears derived from a supposed problem with my health that I didn’t understand.

Now some of them literally felt like they came out of nowhere, with no reason at all connected to them. But they were usually attacks linked to an intial attack, which was always to do with my health. They always occured when I thought something was wrong with me and the fear just escalated into an attack.

Glenelg Beach, Adelaide

How Do You Make Them Stop?

Again, it’s different for everyone.

But just knowing that what I was experiencing was a panic attack was the way I stopped mine initially.

Because I realised that trying to fight it was just making it worse. I was getting more panicked, the fear took over and it would be a full-blown attack.

Whereas when I started to change my tactics, things turned out differently. I started experiencing the first symptoms – hot flush, heart racing, arms going tingly – and I would say to myself “I’m having a panic attack, I can’t fight it. I’ll just wait for it to end”. And then the panic attack would never follow through. It would immediately die down.

Y’know because I wasn’t feeding fear to the panic attack monster. I was almost relaxing my body to wait it out and that relaxation was conquering it completely.

After I did this a few times, they just stopped coming altogether. And I went a full decade before I had one again.

Just to point out again, I’m not a doctor, but I’m just telling you what worked for me over here.

Why Did Mine Come Back?

Ugh, whhyyyyyyyy.

I’m kind of mad at myself for having another one this week. Because after ten years of being panic-attack-free, I had forgotten what they were like, and I didn’t even realise I was having one at the time.

I had a bit of a weird health-related thing which gave me some anxiety on the Sunday and I struggled to get to sleep. But when I did, I woke up an hour later from disturbing nightmares and had a very long and scary panic attack. Every time I tried to go back to sleep afterwards, another attack threatened to come back. I was awake for pretty much the whole night.

Eventually I distracted myself by watching bloopers from The US Office on my phone and managed to get an hour or two in. But the exhaustion led me to having to call in sick to work the next day.

Not cool, anxiety. Not cool.

It was obviously the health thing that brought this on, because I know that’s my trigger and it all makes sense in retrospect. I’ve had to remind myself of how I manage them, just in case another one pops up over the next few weeks.


What To Tell Work?

I feel like there’s been lots in the media about mental health and how businesses need to be more accommodating of staff that need to call in sick for these kind of reasons. So although I considered saying I had a headache or something, I decided that it was only right to explain the real reason why I couldn’t come in. Because things only become more accepted when more people do them, right?

And my manager was understanding which is great. But my HR department also asked me to come and see them when I got back to work.

Now, this was totally a positive thing.

They wanted to check I was ok and to say they understood if I needed a day every now and then to recover from a future panic attack. And if I needed any help or support they were there for me.

All positive.

But it also made me feel a bit like I’d been put in the mental health bucket. I know we should treat mental illness the same way we would treat physical illness, but I’m not sure 1 day off qualified for this response. Like if I had a day off for a stomach bug I wouldn’t have had to go to HR after, y’know?

But this may be because I hate feeling weak or vulnerable. I hate special treatment. I should be really grateful for this support, I know.

And I know that my friends who have anxiety, some a lot more extreme than mine, would love this kind of support. It doesn’t seem that common in the workplace. And I’ve heard some of their experiences within their jobs which are totally ridiculous. Like being told to go get help rather than offering anything themselves.

But the thing that kinda bugged me was how some of my colleagues reacted.

A few had experienced panic attacks before and were really understanding and said they could relate, which is great and supportive.

But some asked me how I was feeling in a tone of voice like they were walking on eggshells. Like they didn’t know what to say or how I would react. Like they thought I was a weirdo or I was going to fly off the handle at any second. This may be my insecurities speaking. I may be reading into things. I don’t know. It was just all a bit weird.

Another person asked me how my “day off” was and if I got up to much. Yep, that happened.

It all just highlighted to me how little knowledge some people still have about anxiety and mental health.

Although I have to say, after mentioning briefly on my Insta that I’d had a panic attack, all of my best friends messaged me, my blogger bae Sophie posted chocolate and a magazine through my door and I got a lot of support from Internet pals.

So, y’know, thanks for that. It definitely felt good.

But anyway that’s my 2 cents on the issue. Like I said, it’s not something I’m used to talking about so I hope it helped someone in some way.

Now to go fight the good fight against panic attacks and anxiety in general. You in?

Let me know what you think in the comments below, tweet me at @HeelsInBackpack or find me on Instagram at @Heels.In.My.Backpack!

Animal Jumpsuit in Ljubljana

4 thoughts on “When Panic Attacks Strike

  • 7th November 2017 at 9:55 pm

    Know this feeling all too well. My trigger used to be food related but now it’s most definitely health related, much like yours. I’ve spent many hours when I should be asleep reading trivial rubbish on BuzzFeed to calm myself down 🙁

    Hope you’re ok. Keep fighting the fight! X

    • Kara // Heels In My Backpack
      8th November 2017 at 8:52 am

      Ugh it’s the worst isn’t it? Defintely need light-hearted entertaonment to try and distract you. Thanks love, hope you’re doing well x

  • 4th January 2018 at 11:53 pm

    I sadly know this feeling all too well. I had one today just having my blood pressure checked at the GP in the self-service machine, thinking OH MY GOD my arm is going to get stuck and I’m going to have to stay here until they amputate my arm. Yeah, panic attacks suck. Best thing for me is distraction, because I know that once I give in to those fears I just have to run away and hide – which isn’t a great feeling in public! Much love to you, and hope things have calmed down since you wrote this piece. x

    • Kara // Heels In My Backpack
      8th January 2018 at 11:48 am

      Sorry to hear that Emily, they really are the worst aren’t they?? Luckily I haven’t had one since I wrote this, fingers crossed it stays that way. Hope you feel better and sending my love xx


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