I had my first panic attack at thirteen.
I remember it with haunting clarity – the tightness in my chest, the feeling simultaneously of not being able to breath and of breathing too much, too fast. There was a sensation like a vice squeezing around my head. There were tingles in my hands and fingers. And there was fear – fear of not knowing what was happening, if I was dying, if my brain was going to explode, if I was going to pass out –
When I say to people that I have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), some of them nod, “oh yeah, I get anxious all the time,” they say. And maybe they do – maybe they’re also sufferers of anxiety.
But most of the time, the anxiety that they’re referring to is the normal level. Anxiety, in small doses, is a part of being human; it’s a natural response to stressful situations. Got a job interview coming up? Anxious. Waiting on news from the doctor? Anxious. Trying to change lanes on a busy freeway with your exit coming up but no one letting you in and cars everywhere??? Yeah, anxious.
But the difference between this anxiety and the anxiety that people with an anxiety disorder live with is vast – there doesn’t need to be a busy dual carriageway at peak hour or frowning HR person firing interview questions at you to feel anxious when you have an anxiety disorder. Sometimes all you need is to wake up in the morning.
The world is filled with misconceptions about anxiety disorders – so here’s a few things that I, an anxiety disorder sufferer, want you to know:
1. Everyone’s method of coping with a panic attack is different
“Dr Google” defines a panic attack as a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety and physical symptoms, based on a perceived threat rather than actual imminent danger. This definition is far more concise and helpful then mine, which is just “a panic attack is fucking awful, 0/10 don’t recommend.”
Dr Google can be quite helpful in understanding the mechanics of panic attacks, but what I would warn people against is looking up “how to help someone through a panic attack.”
Now obviously I’m not talking about frantic googling of what to do in heat of the moment of someone you don’t know succumbing to anxiety – what I’m talking about is if someone you love has opened up and said, “hey, I get panic attacks.” Because, rather than relying on Dr Google, what I recommend you do here is ask a simple question, “what works best to help you through and after a panic attack?”
The simple fact is that everyone copes differently with a panic attack. Some people can’t bear to be touched; others need to be. Some people need you to be quiet, others need a stream of inane chatter as a distraction. Some need a shock of cold water to their skin; others might need to be bundled into a weighted blanket.
So, if you want to be there for someone who suffers from panic attacks, the best thing is to just ask them how to do it.
2. There’s not always a reason for the anxiety
You know that scene in the Avengers movie when someone asks the Hulk to get angry and he says something like, “that’s my secret – I’m always angry.” Well, that’s me and a lot of other anxiety sufferers – we are always anxious.
There is continually a low-level thrum of worry in the background – it’s like the music of cicadas in the Australian summer. It's always there, and sometimes you don’t notice, but then your attention will be brought back to it and you’ll wonder how you ever ignored it because it’s all you can hear and all you can think about.
And there’s not always a reason.
As I said before, sometimes I wake up and simply… feel anxious. I won’t be able to articulate why, I will just recognise that my chest is a little tighter and the anxiety I live with is so much more pronounced.
Unfortunately, the reality of an anxiety disorder is that we can’t always tell you what is worrying us. It’s everything and it’s nothing.
I know this frustrates those with “fix-it” type personalities who just want to make the problem go away. But pushing for us to try and locate a root for the fluttering of our heart in our chest is only going to make that beating go a little faster.
Basically, you pushing us about why we feel anxious, is making us more anxious.
So, the best advice I can give? Just be there for us. Ask what we need, if anything, give us a hug (if we want one) and feel grateful that we’re comfortable enough to articulate our unfounded anxiety without fear of being judged by you. That’s pretty great.
3. Ask about anxiety triggers
So, there’s not always a reason for anxiety, yes, but there can be certain triggers.
Some people cannot stand crowds and might even be triggered by a busy shopping centre. For me, I can get triggered when I’m overheated or if I feel nauseous to the point of thinking I might vomit. As you can see, some triggers are weirdly specific.
If you ask about them, those weirdly specific ones that can be avoided (like, don’t invite me to sun bake in direct heat for four hours I guess?) or at least you can both be mentally prepared to deal with potential anxiety flare-ups if you know you’re entering a situation where triggers exist.
4. Be careful with your words (like never say “we need to talk” okay?)
I feel like the idea of being careful of what you say is universal (thinking about the impact of your words on other people is a basic cornerstone of being a decent human being).
But that being said, people with anxiety are often overthinkers. I, for example, can spend a good hour obsessing over the words “yeah sure” sent to me by someone I love (where is the emoji? Are they mad at me? Do they actually mean “no fuck off”? Are they about to cut me out of their life forever?) When my boss schedules a meeting out of the blue for me I automatically assume I’m about to be fired. Someone says “love you” rather than “I love you” – why did they leave the “I” off? Was that intentional? Is the love lessening?
You get the idea.
It can be the default for someone with anxiety to go to the “worst case scenario” and offhanded comments can trigger anxiety spirals. I’m not saying you need to walk on eggshells around people with anxiety, I’m just saying it’s worth rereading that text you sent or calming a snappish tone that is directed more at the person who cut you off driving fifteen minutes ago then the anxious person you’ve just walked in the door to.
5. Have patience
This brings me to my final point, and, to me, the most important. A while back, my therapist asked me why I felt so hesitant in sharing the details of my anxiety with my boyfriend. I told her that I was worried I would seem like I was hard work. That dealing with my anxiety disorder would be exhausting. “So?” my therapist said. “So, what if it is? Don’t you think you’re worth it?”
I immediately broke down.
Because, the thing is, at the time, I didn’t think I was worth it. Now, I have come leaps and bounds in my self-worth and while I still struggle with this, I recognise that I’m not any less deserving of love because I suffer from a mental illness.
I also recognise that I require a little bit more patience and understanding because I get into my head, I spiral, I have panic attacks, I say to my partner I can’t socialise because I feel too anxious, I get overwhelmed, I cry. For my friends, I might vanish for a while, then be too scared to reach out because I’ll be convinced you hate me. I will overthink and overanalyse.
So my final point is asking that you have a little patience for the people in your life with anxiety. Take the time to recognise that anxiety disorders are real and sufferers are not just people who are “too sensitive.” We can’t be cured by telling us to “be less anxious.” Saying “you have nothing to be anxious about in your life though?” isn’t some eye-opening statement uncovering something we’ve never thought of before – it’s just a sentence that makes us feel bad and guilty over something we can’t control.
As I wrote this, I thought to myself, someone is going to read this and think “what a headache to live with.” It momentarily stopped me, my fingers poised on my laptop, a flash of fear in my stomach. But I’ve realised the people who will read this are people who want to know; they want to understand either themselves or someone in their life.
My experiences of anxiety are unique to myself and not everything I’ve said will apply to other people, but hopefully it can help to open a dialogue, and that’s the most important part.