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: