A first-hand account of what it’s like to have an anxiety attack. Why share? When posting about anxiety, I wanted to share with people what it’s like to have anxiety attacks. I believe this is useful for those who:
• suffer from anxiety attacks: to demonstrate empathy and solidarity.
• may suffer an attack in the future: to help them understand what might happen.
• don’t suffer with severe anxiety and find it difficult to understand.
• may find themselves supporting someone experiencing an attack: to help know what to do.
When thinking how I would approach this topic, I concluded that the most authentic and honest way would be to describe the first of my severe anxiety attacks.
I was surprised how draining and emotional it was to recall and write down. But as many who share their experiences find, it’s a great way to come to terms with what happened and move on positively. For me, using my experiences to positively impact others is also integral to my coaching.
Whilst anxieties and worries may start in the mind, an anxiety attack is what I’d call a Total Body Experience and can be extremely scary. That’s something that’s often difficult to understand for someone who hasn’t experienced an attack, after all how can a worry be anything other than a simple thought…
An uneventful day …
It was the evening of an uneventful day which, during a period of my depression and anxiety, was a good outcome. Work had been ok. After work was the usual delight with my boys, though now they were tucked up in bed. My wife was upstairs, and I had just come in from the garden where I had been putting our bunnies to bed in their snuggly house.
… or so I thought
As I came into the house I felt a little on edge, for some reason. When reaching the lounge though, my hands began to shake. I started pacing. It felt like I had an enormous amount of energy, but it was all trapped inside of me desperate to get out. I was getting hot, sweating. My head was throbbing, my heart racing and pumping as if it was going to burst out of my chest. I couldn’t keep still, I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t focus, I felt like screaming but I couldn’t. My breathing was shallow and fast and getting faster; I couldn’t get enough air. I felt completely out of control, completely helpless and I didn’t know what on earth was going on.
This continued, and got worse. All the symptoms got worse. My body and mind were completely on overdrive and felt at their limit in a way I’d never experienced before. I’d had a bad asthma attack before, but this was different…very, very different. There is no energy in an asthma attack, and you usually have more trouble breathing out. This was not how I felt.
After a while my wife walked into the lounge. She was obviously surprised and concerned in equal measure. I hadn’t called for her. I should have, but in the moment, on my own, so completely overwhelmed and out of breath somehow, I didn’t seem able. It’s strange looking back on it; I was so loved, so surrounded by family and yet in that moment, in that crisis I felt so alone and unable to call for help. Another of anxiety’s cruel tricks.
My wife comforted me, I explained what I could through gasping breaths, which to be honest wasn’t much. Maybe it was the change in temperature – it was coldish outside. Maybe it was an asthma attack, but it didn’t seem right. If a body could scream, that’s what my body was doing. Sitting to try to calm down didn’t help. There was so much energy, my muscles were completely fuelled: jigging, shaking.
One extreme to the other
After a while though, things slowly began to change … life started slowing down, I was dizzy, my vision blurry … paramedics were on their way … my wife comforted, supported and talked to me, but the energy inside every fibre of my body, that moments before had felt so intense and unmanageable, subsided. Now I was exhausted. Now I felt lifeless. I could no longer hold myself up.
I do remember whispering to my wife that I loved her, in a shallow breath. It wasn’t long after this that she was putting me in the recovery position. Body limp. Now an empty shell. Vision and hearing compromised. Breathing slow and shallow, barely breathing in air. I remember what I can only describe as a complete and utter calm and peace flow over me. No worry. No sadness, no fear. Ironically, no anxiety. I felt at complete peace and I was two shallow breaths from passing away. This was an absolute certainty in my mind.
Seeing me like this, my wife hugged and shook me, whilst raising the tone and urgency of her voice; trying to awaken my senses and recalibrate my breathing… desperate to get life back into me. The paramedics arrived, oxygen mask applied, several questions with incoherent answers pursued. Eventually I sat up, breathing in the oxygen. Still feeling completely exhausted but at least conscious, I gradually returned to the room.
A few tests later and I was considered as strong as an ox …. except for the diagnosis being that I’d suffered a severe anxiety/panic attack and it might take a while for my body to recover.
So why did this happen?
My wife was amazing; she’s my rock, my life saver. The paramedics were brilliant, calm, attentive and kept their humour.
As for me, I was exhausted, shocked and emotional. I knew I suffered from anxiety. I knew I suffered from depression. And importantly for me I could always point to answers, reasons why, an explanation, even if that was built up over years, as to why I felt like I did or suffered with the illnesses I had. But this, this was something new. Something different. A completely uncontrollable total body experience that affected every fibre of my body and my mind, and it took me from explosive energy to empty shell … all within around 45 minutes. This had also required immediate medical attention – like an asthma attack. The biggest frustration for me though was that this had no obvious trigger. It came out of the blue on an otherwise good day.
On reflection it’s likely to have been the build-up of my anxiety over the years, reaching a point where the mind and body could no longer take it. Maybe…
What I am certain of though, is it was one of the scariest, most intense and yet at times most peaceful experiences of my life … and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Sharing is caring
Having been through this, I feel it is important to share my experience. To know that as difficult and draining as anxiety is, it can be managed, that severe attacks will pass, and you will physically recover. This is important comfort.
It’s also worth remembering that sometimes anxiety attacks can happen with no obvious, immediate explanation. From my experience I’ve come to realise that’s ok; don’t let the search for a trigger generate more anxiety for you.
By sharing my story, I also hope it helps give others the courage to share, talk and reach out about their anxieties. So, next time you or someone close to you talks about anxiety, about worry, about a build-up of emotions, take it seriously. Take it very seriously.
And remember, when I offer my support to help with your anxieties and worries, know that it’s from a deeply personal understanding and experience.
Wishing you all well.
Martin Seville, Wellbeing Coach and founder of Empathy Coaching