I Had No Idea I Was Having Panic Attacks: They Didn’t Match the Drama I’d Been Taught to Expect

Chalk another thing up to misrepresentation in media. In TV shows and movies when someone has a panic attack it’s a big deal. They clutch their chest, fall to the ground, or are sure it’s a heart attack. They heave big, panicked breaths.

They don’t curl into a ball and stay very, very quiet. I think that’s why for years, decades probably, when doctors etc. asked if I had panic attacks I would say, “No.”

I should have been saying yes. It turns out that panic attacks are not always dramatic (to those not feeling them, that is). I now think I may have been having them my whole life.

I undoubtably have a long history of depression and anxiety. Some of my most vivid early memories are of sitting in elementary school, dreading the possibility that the fire bell might ring. I don’t know why. Maybe I was startled by it once, and was determined to always be prepared for it. I don’t know how old I was, but everyday I would nervously wait for the fire alarm to go off. This phase could have lasted for days or months for all I know.

So anxiety and I were familiar with each other. What I have now realized are panic attacks were different. Because I didn’t really pay attention to them, I’m not sure what they were like when I was younger, but I can tell you what they feel like now. It’s some combination of these:

  1. My shoulders become tight and hunched.
  2. My eyes start to get sore, as though I’ve been looking at a bright light.
  3. My heart starts to beat slightly faster — as if I had been walking briskly.
  4. Sounds become louder, so I start to seek someplace quiet.

[I realized I was writing a lot about sound sensitivity. So I just looked it up to see if it’s typical of panic attacks, and found the term phonophonia: an overwhelming fear of sudden, loud noise. “A person with this condition may experience deep distress about a loud noise they know is coming, as well as by an unexpected loud noise.” I had no idea this was a thing. More research is in order.]

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

Anyway, the result of my panic reactions is that I retreat in whatever way I can, finding a quiet place by myself. I try to slow my breath and heart beat. If I can get away from stimuli it will sometimes fade in a few minutes, but I am always tired afterward. If I cannot get far enough away from stimuli it will continue or get worse until I can.

Things that have triggered panic attacks in the past:

  1. Noisy restaurants
  2. Feeling stuck or restricted in my movements
  3. Crowds
  4. Sudden loud noises
  5. Getting angry at someone
  6. Places or smells associated with past stress
  7. Too much attention from a group

I had (relatively) low-key ways to handle this. When in public, I would try to tune out my environment and focus on my breathing. I would seek someplace that would cut down on stimuli, at least a little bit. If it’s really bad I would cover my ears.

Except for the ear-covering, not really behaviours that anyone would notice, or think of as anything more than being overwhelmed. After all, even I have been dismissing them for years. What’s changed is that I started having so many of them that I was unable to get away from the triggers. And finally my body and mind could not continue, and I shut down.

I am still recovering from that. Hence, the picking apart of behaviors to find possible explanations, and possible ways forward.

Thank you for letting me communicate this to you. You may have noticed that I discovered some new things in the writing of it. I hope that more people start to identify their panic attacks, even if they are undramatic.


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