What it’s like (for me) to have a panic attack
"The anxiety built up in silence, as it always does..."
I have a condition called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. I am not an expert on mental health or mental illnesses, or even GAD in particular. I do know what it’s like for me.
Sometimes it’s a constant nagging feeling that something is wrong, putting me in a fight-or-flight mode, even though logically I know everything is fine. Other times it’s a tightness in my chest that makes it hard to breathe. I tend to be more sensitive to stressors, and when someone around me is exhibiting some negative emotion, I soak it up like a sponge. It can exhaust me, physically and emotionally.
Everyone feels anxiety. But not everyone has an anxiety disorder. For it to have that label, the anxiety has to be debilitating — it interferes with your daily life, inhibits your ability to live normally, sometimes making it incredibly difficult to accomplish simple tasks. There are all sorts of ways this can manifest. In high school, I would sit at my desk at home for hours trying to get assignments done, only to feel like a brick wall was constantly in my way, and make zero progress. This is before I even knew I had anxiety. In college, I would stay in bed and miss class if there was any significant chance I’d be late — not showing up at all was somehow preferable to showing up after class had begun. My grades took a hit every time these things happened, which only made my anxiety worse. I dropped or failed many classes, and had to retake them in later semesters or over summers. I was put on academic probation three times.
Everything worked out okay in the end, and I even graduated on time — but it was really, really hard. I don’t know where I would have ended up if I hadn’t gone to a university with decent counseling and mental health resources, or if I didn’t have insurance to afford therapy and medication, or if my parents hadn’t been attentive and loving every step of the way (not to mention willing to pay for summer classes). Things are much better for me today.
But not all days.
The anxiety built up in silence, as it always does. I was feeling fine when we first got to church. Then, some invasive little thought took root. I don’t remember what it was — it could have been any tiny thing I had been stressed about that day, something that had happened earlier in the week, something from years ago. Maybe I just didn’t want to go back to work on Monday. Whatever the case, the thought was there, and that was sustenance enough for my anxiety to feed upon and grow.
My mind wandered, even more than it usually does during Sunday mass. Even as the choir sang hymns I liked, and the visiting deacon gave a homily both joyous and thoughtful, all I could think about were fears and failures. The thoughts weren’t deliberate or logical — they manifested on their own and burrowed into my conscious mind, carrying paranoia and doubt that spread like a mold into every adjacent thought. The virus pushed my brain into overdrive, and one thought became two, became five, became ten. When things become that crowded, the thoughts have nowhere left to go but out, and soon everything I saw became distorted by the lens of my illness. I couldn’t remember the things I loved, and every fear or doubt I had ever had about my family and friends became magnified until that’s all I could see of them.
As mass continued, I tried to refocus, to clear my head and just focus on prayer. But the anxious thoughts had grown too strong, too big, too furious. They shot back and forth in my mind, banging against the walls of my skull, never staying in one place long enough for me to process them. It was loud inside my head. Entirely too loud. It was overwhelming.
Soon the thoughts moved so fast and so violently that everything just became noise. The anxiety was no longer coming from something recognizable, from one or even many sources — it came from everywhere. It had grown into the great terror. There was no predator, no imminent threat, and yet my brain was choosing to respond as if there was. Get out, it said, but where to, I didn’t know. Shield yourself, it said, but against what, I didn’t know. You’re dying, it said, but from what, I didn’t know.
I didn’t know. I just felt.
Walking up to communion, the logical part of me, suffocating though it was, knew I needed to do something. It recognized that this was my anxiety holding me hostage. I needed my meds. So I planned to leave for the pharmacy as soon as the family and I returned home, hoping I could endure until then. As I returned to the pew and knelt, I prayed for help — not for strength, as by that point I was pretty much convinced I had none. I prayed for enough of a reprieve that I could just make my way to the pharmacy on my own, not worry anybody else or interrupt the day’s festivities (it was Father’s Day).
When I stood for the recessional hymn, I realized I was too emotionally unstable to make it home without arousing suspicion, without someone asking me what was wrong. (A strange thing to fear, I know, but anxiety doesn’t operate on logic. It operates by preying on your insecurities and goading you into isolation.) I knew I had to tell someone. But I had been holding things in for so long that I didn’t know how to let them out. So I stayed silent.
I exited the pew with my siblings, deliberately facing away so they wouldn’t see the anxiety likely written on my expression. Then my dad came around the corner. “Mom wants us to take a family picture,” he said cheerily. But I knew I couldn’t wait any longer.
“I gotta, uh, do a…” I trailed off, holding up my phone. I hurried away to a corner and tried calling the pharmacy to see if my prescription was ready.
“How can I help you?” the automated voice on the line said. Right, they changed the system — I have to actually speak instead of pressing numbers. Great.
“I’d… like to check the status of a prescription.” My voice was weak and trembling.
“Prescription status,” the robot answered. “Please say your Rx number.”
Crap. Of course I didn’t have the number, the bottle was at home. Flustered, I hung up. I felt my face get hot and my eyes water up. I turned more towards the wall so the congregation exiting their pews wouldn’t see, wouldn’t stop and try to help me in a situation I couldn’t possibly explain at the moment.
Soon my older brother walked over to me. “Ready for family picture?” he said. Then he saw my face — or I assume he did. I was full-on sobbing at that point, and my vision was blurry. “Jack, are you okay?”
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t physically get the words out. I covered my face with my hand, half trying to wipe away tears, half trying to hide.
I heard my dad’s voice. “Jack, you okay? Did you get a bad phone call?”
I tried to say, “No, I’m just feeling really anxious,” but that’s not what came out. I was literally struggling to form words. In between sharp, rapid breaths, I shook my head and managed to quietly say, “Really… anxious…”
“What can we do to help?”
A few seconds of uncontrollable, quiet sobbing, and then I managed: “Need… my meds.”
“Okay, we’ll go get them right now, how about that?”
We walked quickly but calmly out of the main sanctuary, towards the parking lot. Dad got stopped for a moment in the lobby, pulled over by a friend. I felt the panic all over again, and rushed to face the nearest wall so nobody in the crowded narthex could see me crying. After what was probably less than ten seconds but felt much longer, we continued our walk toward the parking lot.
By the time I was in the car with my dad, I was a little more coherent. I explained that I had been out of one of my two medications for one day, and that it should be ready at the pharmacy by now but I wasn’t sure. After a few minutes, I remembered the bottle of Xanax my psychiatrist had prescribed for emergency situations, which I kept at home, and decided this was about as “emergency” as it gets, so we took a detour.
Ten minutes later, I was already starting to feel calmer — although whether that was because I had taken the pill or because I was alone with my dad where I could close my eyes and breathe deeply, I’m not sure. Almost certainly both. Forty-five minutes and two pharmacies later(!), I had my regular meds too. The storm passed.
It astonishes me how quickly these things happen — how soon they arrive, and how suddenly they leave. I had had a good morning before my panic attack (one of the worst I’ve ever had), and a few hours later I felt pretty much normal, albeit more tired. It was a good day after that — ate cobbler, played board games, made some people laugh. Today was a good day too.
But for those few hours yesterday, I was alternately terrified and despondent. Could it have been prevented? Maybe. Missing a day of my meds usually doesn’t affect me much, although obviously I try my best to avoid it. This time it clearly hit me harder, and part of that was likely due to the stress of a new job that I was just three weeks into, coupled with a particularly exhausting and emotionally stressful week.
My point in writing this is not to gain sympathy or to look for support. (Although I do appreciate all the support I have!) Rather, it’s my hope that writing about this experience will help someone — a friend or family member of someone with anxiety who’s struggling to understand, or a person who’s gone through similar experiences and might not want to feel alone. Alongside depression, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the world. You almost certainly know someone with one, whether they’ve made it known to you or not — or whether they themselves have figured that out yet. My experience is one among countless others, and I’m in a very fortunate, privileged place when it comes to my anxiety. I have a support system in place: a therapist, a psychiatrist, a loving family that’s always willing to listen, friends who know what I’ve gone through in some way. Not everyone has the help I have — very few do, really. So all I ask of you is this — don’t be their savior, be their friend. Don’t try to fix them or preach authority (unless, of course, you’re their psychiatrist, in which case you almost certainly already know better than I do). Ask what you can do for them. Try your best to understand that some people go through this, even if you can’t understand how or why, or even what it is. And don’t minimize it for them — acknowledge it, express sympathy, and be a friend.
This was my story. Be ready to hear someone else’s.