For years I had a dirty little secret. In hot, stuffy vehicles and rooms, my heart would palpitate and I'd hyperventilate. I felt scared, helpless, and desperate, as though my world was crashing in, while I looked for a crack or window that I could stick my head out of so I could breathe.
The first time it happened, my train had broken down. It stayed tilted on the tracks; I felt disoriented. The heater was at full-blast, and I was perspiring from sprinting to catch the train. The first thought that blared at me wasn't What's going on? It was, I'm trapped. How can I breathe?
I didn't know I was having a panic attack. By the time the third one rolled in, it hit me. I was ashamed. I'm a psychologist; I help people with their panic attacks, and here I was, having one. That's the dirty little secret that only me, myself, and I knew.
Some background: I had felt trapped in two toxic situations. There was a person of authority who made things difficult. And then, there was a man who repeatedly accused me of things he hallucinated — I could be opening the fridge but he'd say I was stripping for the webcam. Life felt ludicrous, but I felt I couldn't leave these situations for a multitude of reasons. So I worked toward standing up for and protecting myself. That improved my circumstances greatly: a compromise I was willing to accept.
At the same time, I started noticing that my clients' big, scary thoughts during panic attacks were telling. Because panic attacks are really your body's way of telling you that something's not quite right, we worked to honor that big scary thought. To truly vanquish a panic attack's hold on you, it isn't enough to know how to deal with them. We have to explore what exactly needs to change. Besides "I am trapped," the most common panic-attack-inducing thoughts I've noticed in my clients are the following:
1. "Everyone will laugh at me."
When panic attacks happen in public— especially in crowded places— we believe that others are watching us or even laughing at us. Psychologists Gilovich and Sativsky coined the term "spotlight effect" to describe the feeling we're being noticed more than we really are, as though the figurative spotlight is perpetually flashed on us.
As a result, we can feel self-conscious. During panic attacks, it didn't matter whether my clients were taking different trains or in a one-off situation, they thought they could never show their faces in public again after a panic attack. As we explored things more deeply, it was clear that in spite of their competence in their jobs and social lives, they didn't feel that confident.
Someone spoke about a recent promotion for which she had to speak and present constantly. She'd always thought she wasn't good enough in these departments, and she believed that people mocked her secretly when she spoke. Another discussed how he thought his girlfriend was too beautiful for him and believed that others were laughing behind his back. Both were plagued with feelings of inadequacy that had always been bubbling under the surface, but when triggered by recent developments, erupted into panic attacks.
2. "I'm so useless, I'll never get better."
A client felt rejected by dates who ghosted her and was angry with herself for being "useless" and thought she'd never find a decent man. Another had experienced a series of unfortunate events he blamed himself for—not closing a major deal, the death of a loved one, and the end of a relationship.
In self-development and healing, we often speak of self-love. But it can be a daunting concept in the minds of those who hate themselves or feel undeserving. Instead, how about starting with beating yourself up less? The more pressure we put on ourselves to be faultless, the more helpless we feel when something inevitably deviates from our expectations of perfection. We then become more vulnerable to emotional or mental stress, like panic attacks.
3. "I am not safe."
Andy felt like his friend was infringing on his personal space. Said friend was staying with Andy temporarily but was bringing drunk people home every night. Andy didn't know what to say. He thought he needed to emphasize that his friend was going through a difficult time. It didn't stop Andy from worrying about his own safety and sanity.
Feeling a sense of safety is a fundamental need. It isn't simply about our physical safety— having shelter, food, and water. It's a sense of psychological safety, knowing that we are safe in our homes, relationships, and life in general. But, it can be scary to acknowledge that we're feeling unsafe. We are taught to deny our feelings, lest we appear weak. So we deny them, medicating our discomfort with substances, shopping, or work.
Uncovering the root of their panic attacks has helped my clients and friends to nip them in the bud. As for me, I went through periods of significantly fewer panic attacks, but they would increase during times of higher stress. The common denominator, however, was that I felt competent and able to handle them whenever they hit.
But this isn't a story in which I tell you, "I'll live the rest of my life with panic attacks every month."
When we have panic attacks, our bodies becomes hypersensitive. The first bristle of prickly heat at the back of my neck in a stuffy place, especially as I transitioned from the outside air into an enclosed space, could make or break me. As the toxicity in my situation escalated, my body was more vulnerable. From December to February, I had multiple panic attacks. In hot planes, cars, and taxis. They weren't pleasant. I dealt with them but wished they'd go away.
As I walked into a VIP business mixer, I felt my heart race as the heater blasted. I'm trapped was the first thing my mind screamed. I almost turned around to leave, despite having traveled 3,470 miles to be there.
No, you're not trapped, I told myself kindly yet firmly. This is where you're meant to be. This is your tribe, your place, and the beginning of your next chapter in becoming untrapped by everything else.
The heat dissipated. My heartbeat slowed, I felt the joy— which I had always known— return to me. I tapped into it and started connecting with people.
Since then, I've sat in hot, stuffy trains in the thick of the summer heat, walked in and out of similar rooms, and I haven't experienced a panic attack. I've also extricated myself from any aforementioned toxic situations.
I tell this story because I want you to know that anybody can experience panic attacks or mental health struggles, because life happens. As a mental health professional, I was once ashamed of my panic attacks. I rationalized that just because someone can help you with your problems doesn't mean they're not struggling with the same— they're simply trained with the skills and technique. But that didn't console me fully, even if I was seeking help and working on it. I needed to redefine and work myself out of being and feeling trapped. The situations were tricky, and I got myself out of them eventually.
I also tell you this story because like you, I am human. I know what it is like to have been on one side and reach the other end of the tunnel, finally seeing light and deeply inhaling the sweet scent of fresh air. If you have panic attacks, you're not alone. You can deal with them. One day, you will breathe again.
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