My Encounter with Anxiety and Panic Attacks

By J. B. Nash – July 12, 2020

Growing Up with Social Anxiety 

Every day, when I would walk the halls of my elementary school and throughout my high school, I felt a sense of mis-belonging. The ill-becoming dread of each lunch break always weighed down on my soul. The trembling unknowns battling my brain, searching for answers in their eyes as they watched me sitting alone on the grass at recess. The gentle push of the wind held out its hand, but paranoia overcame where trust should‘ve been. 

I don’t think I’ve ever felt a sense of belonging. 

Not in school, church, family, or anywhere else that I can think of. Perhaps it was my fault that I had gathered up all the negatives about life like candy at a Halloween party that ultimately led me to distrust people, and yet I couldn’t help but think that there was simply something wrong with me. 

Was it my personality? My attitude? My physical appearance? Or was I just falling behind in life? After all, my last day of high school left me with no idea of what my career should be. No driver’s license and no job at the age of 18. I was shy and had a difficult time making any close friends, let alone gathering enough courage to date someone. Imagine that!

“Too often we believe we’re falling behind if we don’t meet people‘s expectations for us at a certain age, a certain time. But don’t forget – you are simply forging our own path in life, and it’s only frightening to you because there are so many unknowns to it. But that’s precisely what also makes it so liberating.”

After turning 19, the realization dawned on me that I had social anxiety.

It had prevented me from aspiring for anything outside of my comfort zone, which consisted of reading books, making up fantasy stories in my head, and spending time with my pets. I lived for the fantasy world. Every wintery morning I would run to the bus, anticipating the empty back seat where Jack Frost would greet me at the window’s edge. I would curl up and trace the unique patterns on the glass, forming the landscapes, animals, and their unique lives within, all in my head. I would imagine myself in them, an escape from an otherwise mundane life.

I don’t believe that anyone in my school really understand mental illness, and I don’t blame them. I didn’t understand it either.

Martial arts was really outlet that allowed me to really gain confidence in myself. Not in a “wow, you’re suddenly outgoing!” sorta way, but instead in the form a quiet and mindful confidence from within. People often mistake “bold and assertive“ as being synonymous with an outgoing and talkative nature, but confidence is simply feeling assured in one’s own abilities and talents, regardless of societal judgement and perceptions.

What It’s like Having Panic Attacks

Even with a growing sense of self-worth, I still experienced intense waves of emotion from recent events in my life that I didn’t know how to properly deal with. This turned into a more sinister form, all without my knowledge or approval.

I first experienced a panic attack when my family got into a verbal argument. I was in my 20’s and experienced my first break up, so I was already in a vulnerable place. While the reasons have faded, the emotions strike a scar to the very corner of my memories.

My heart began pounding, beating so hard I could hear it in my ears. Heat flushed to my face, then a bout of cold shooting throughout my body. I had to open my mouth to get the air into my lungs as my nose could not breath in fast enough. My breath trembled as my limbs wouldn’t stop shaking. My jaw clenched so tightly I was afraid I would break my teeth. Dizziness from the lack of oxygen forced me to curl up on my bed as my mom held my hand. The tears came like rain in a Midwest springtime. 

It took around ten minutes to calm myself down, but it wouldn’t be my last encounter with the grip of absolute fear that had overtaken my body and my mind. It was my brain in overdrive. The feeling when a wild tiger appears in your house that has no doors or lights and you’re all alone in the darkness of night, backed up into a corner. That feeling, the sense that everything you’ve ever known will disappear. That you will lose all semblance of control. And your life will end in pain.  

Living With Panic Disorder

“Slow breathing is like an anchor in the midst of an emotional storm: the anchor won’t make the storm goes away, but it will hold you steady until it passes.”

Russ Harris

There’s a sense of embarrassment and humiliation that comes with the aftermath of experiencing one. Panic attacks are not always obvious, but when they’re visible under the scrutiny of the public eye, you sometimes feel you’ve gone back to your childhood days where your mother tells you that you can’t have candy and you protest by crying or curling up into a ball, wanting to forget about life. But this time, you‘re aware of the absolute silliness of it, wanting no one to know of these “irrational” feelings of anxiety.

So why are you upset? Why overwhelm yourself with this feeling? Just move on and don’t think about it…right? 

— First of all, it’s important to remember that everyone has something. Everyone has an issue that they’re dealing with, emotionally, physically, or both. 

— According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “researchers have found that several parts of the brain…misinterpret harmless bodily sensations as threats.” In this sense, our minds go into defense mood when, truly, we are completely safe.   

— Many times, panic attacks and anxiety stem from past stressful and traumatic events. It can run in families, but the reasons are unclear why some members have it and some don’t. 

— Don’t be afraid to talk to someone about it. If they don’t understand, don’t beg them, but instead, simply tell them how you feel and leave it to them how they will respond. Don’t forget, you are still worthy of love, regardless of what anyone says to you.

— Sometimes people simply will not see it as a real issue. Find someone who truly sees you for who you are and will listen without trying to force you to be someone you’re not.

— A mental health specialist, someone who is trained to listen and work alongside you without placing judgement is potentially the best option, because even though our family members may genuinely want to help, sometimes their suggestions might unintentionally worsen the situation. Here is a tool if you need help finding one.

My own experience has been filled with people who refuse to see my pain as legitimate, and others who just tell me to “stop it” because I’m just overreacting or seeking pity. Others mean well, but don’t know how to help, and that’s okay. They aren’t there to fix me in any way. It is up to the person experiencing this anxiety, these panic attacks, to be willing to seek ways to improve themselves.

And, indeed, in life we all must seek to improve ourselves every day, regardless of what situation we are in, or what troubles we carry upon our shoulders.  

Coping with Panic Attacks

If you face panic attacks, you’re not alone. Don’t be ashamed of it. The first step is acknowledgement. The second step is looking for safe ways to cope without causing further harm. Read books on anxiety and panic attacks, watch YouTube videos from professional psychologists, and talk to a trusted friend or family member. If you have no one in the moment, talk to your pet. They are excellent listeners, after all.

Thankfully, I’ve learned some techniques that have worked for me. For one, closing my eyes and taking in slow, timed breaths. 10 seconds breathe in, hold for four, 10 seconds breathe out, hold for four, and repeat. Doing this can help prevent another attack, as well as calm your mind during one.

Another technique I learned is called “grounding,” which is designed to get you to feel the world with your senses and “get back” to yourself. I personally like to focus on my sense of touch. If I’m on a bed, I will focus on the sensation of the fabric of my pillow and the softness of the stuffing inside. If I’m standing in a public place, I will focus on my breath—as I mentioned earlier—taking in the various smells and describing them. Or I will carry a bracelet with me to roll around in my hand, feeling the smooth texture of the beads, the length of the band. I found an article that goes more in depth on what to do if you’re caught in this situation.

And here’s an interesting video on YouTube where a professional psychologist talks about how to address them!

Don’t worry if one method doesn’t work for you, just move to the next one. The most important thing is that you are trying. That alone is a reason to feel proud!

What to do when Someone You Know Has Panic Attacks

My mindset used to be that only other people can help me deal with this and I was helpless to escape it on my own. But I soon learned that I would never be satisfied that way. I must deliberately choose to make a change within myself. 

At the same time, if you’re reading this and you known someone in your life that has these symptoms, knowing how to genuinely be there for them means the world to those who’re suffering. 

Here are some options for you on how to help someone experiencing a panic attack:

— Stay with them, but don’t yell. Talk to them gently. 

— Ask them if they’d like to be touched. For me personally, it helps to grip onto something, like someone’s hand, but it’s always best to ask the individual.

— Help the person breathe by counting to 10. 

— Know that it’s not your job to ”fix” them, nor your fault. 

Here is some more helpful advice on this topic!

Writing About Panic Attacks

Writing about any mental illness can be tricky. You run the risk of offending someone, or misrepresenting the symptoms, the lifestyle of that person, and the overall attitude and stigma towards the disorder. 

As a writer, it’s my job to show the reality of many things, but also to tell a story, one of hardships and trials as well as redemption, growth, and development

The more research you do on a topic, the more likely it will be accurate, but it’s also important to write from the heart. If you write from a sense of understanding and empathy for others, it will blossom into your work and spark a genuine connection with your readers. 

Everyone is human, and we should include their quirks, flaws, talents, and growth over time. Even if it’s not stated outright in the novel, there are ways to show a character’s personality, traits, and flaws by how they react to the world around them.

For example, many people love the beach, but an individual may start to panic if they’ve had a past traumatic event happen to them there. Other times, the attack could come out of nowhere, perhaps at a grocery store or—for all you fantasy writers—while they walk in an enchanted forest. That’s right, even elves can have inner turmoil. Don’t neglect their emotional sides!

I hope this advice is helpful to you. And I hope it sheds a little light on the reality of anxiety and panic attacks. 

(Cover Photo Courtesy of Naresh Arunagiri Photography)