Panic Life

Fighting Stigma and Living with an Anxiety Disorder

Fight, Flight, or Breathe

It is possible to breathe through a panic attack.

I've been having panic attacks since I was 15. One might say I'm an panic attack veteran. I know the symptoms and I've become accustomed them, however uncomfortable they might be. This wasn't always the case. I can vividly remember the first panic attack I had when I was a teenager. I was absolutely terrified. My heart was racing, I was hyperventilating. It felt like my chest was caving in, and I was terrified that I was going to die right then and there. It was one of the scariest moments of my entire life. 

At the time, since I didn't know what I was experiencing, I also had no concept of how to cope with the symptoms. I tried to calm myself down but the room kept spinning. In order to feel less claustrophobic, I stepped outside into fresh air thinking that might alleviate my symptoms of panic. It helped a little, but not much.

There is an expression associated with anxiety: fight or flight. When your body experiences a perceived threat, there are two automatic responses, it wants to either fight the danger or run away from it. I have tried both of these methods to combat anxiety. 

Fight

In the moments where I've fought panic, I was angry with my feelings. I spoke to myself internally:

Please go away

I don't want to feel badly anymore

I hate this

Why is my brain so awful?

Flight

Other times, I have run away from my feelings. 

I can't deal with the sweating and my heart racing

I'm going outside

I'll distract myself by surrounding myself with people so that I don't have to think about what's going on in my own head

I'm going to go to sleep

Fighting with anxiety makes it angrier. Running away from anxiety makes it come back 10 times stronger. You know what works? Being with your panic. I know that may sound odd, because when you are panicking it feels absoultely awful, but hear me out.

One day, I was sitting on my couch and I felt a tightness in my belly. I had an automatic thought: Oh no! I have Fibromyalgia. As soon as the thought entered my mind, I began to experience symptoms of panic. My entire body felt electric with numbness and tingling. Instead of running from the tingling sensation, which was absolutely terrifying, I stayed with it. I breathed into my belly. My eyes closed, and I breathed into the pins and needles in my stomach. In through my nose and out through my mouth.

I told myself that these sensations were temporary. This wave of panic would pass. I rode the waves of anxiety. In through my nose and out through my mouth, my breath flowed. Low and behold I was able to breathe through my first panic attack. It was excruiating and I was terrified throughout the entire experience, but when it was over, I felt like a rock star. I had a huge smile on my face and I knew that if I could do it once, I could surely do it again.

Next time you find yourself in the midst of an anxiety attack, close your eyes, put your hand on your belly, ride the waves, and remember your breath. 

 

Sarah Fader is a mental illness advocate and mother of two living with panic disorder in New York City.

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