** Trigger warning: panic attacks and detailed descriptions **
Early last year, someone asked me why I use two different terms when talking about my anxiety: panic attacks and anxiety attacks, and how do they differ. It was a good question, and my answer would be really personal. So personal that it's taken months for me to answer.
Anxiety can come in a multitude of different forms for everyone, and in very Classic Lou style, I’ve split mine into different boxes. It helps me categorise my anxiety so I know how to deal with it. Therefore, do remember that everything in this post is far from scientific. I’m not a medical professional, I’m a writer, and talking through how I categorise my anxiety is likely to be more wishy washy than scientifically accurate. But, like all discussion on mental health, maybe, just maybe, it could relate to someone else’s experiences…
My anxiety umbrella
Anxiety is my umbrella term. I use it for my general state, including my BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) tendencies which often stem from anxiety. I was diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) in my second year at university, so I really do see it as my 'general' state. I say I live with anxiety, not BPD. I say anxiety clings my ankle, I don’t say I suffer with panic attacks. Anxiety will do.
My anxiety attacks are subtle. I know why they’re triggered, most of the time, and they very quietly bubble in the pit of my stomach.
I used to get them every single morning when I woke up. As soon as I was conscious, The Fear would punch me. ‘HEY LOUISE, WELCOME TO ANOTHER DAY, SOMETHING’S HAPPENING AND MORE THINGS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN AND YOU’VE FORGOTTEN SOMETHING AND AS SOON AS YOU MOVE SHIT’S GONNA GO DOWN AND ARE YOU LOVING ALL THESE FEELINGS THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE ISN’T IT WONDERFUL’.
From the tips of my toes, my body would slowly go numb. It’d work its way up my body. If I let that feeling affect me enough, I’d get pins and needles in my hands and feet. It’d feel like they were eroding. I’d be disappearing. Mornings were the worst.
Socialising was a main trigger of an anxiety attack. It’d mostly ravage me beforehand, but sometimes during too. No one would know. I’d be deathly quiet and the only tell would be the awful sight of me scratching my hands to death. It wasn’t self-harm, but it was a coping mechanism. My skin reacts horribly to anxiety and I would scratch my hands until they bled. Inside, I couldn’t hear properly. My ears would feel like they were bubbling, that’s the only way I can describe it, and my tongue felt numb. I couldn’t talk properly. I probably just sounded drunk. My legs would go numb again and my hands would go clammy. I couldn’t keep up with conversation, I couldn’t concentrate. I’d feel like time was speeding and that I was running a million miles an hour. Everyone was staring at me and whispering about me. No one wanted me there and everyone was plotting against me. That’s what I’d think, anyway.
If I had an anxiety attack away from the social environment, I’d totally space out. I think this is because my thoughts were my own and I wasn’t distracted. It was me and my anxiety and that’s it. This was the climax of an anxiety attack. If I was completely still, not blinking, and breathing either incredibly slowly OR incredibly quickly, I needed to be dragged out of it. I needed to be held incredibly tightly until I cried. Until the emotion was quite literally squeezed out of me. Then I’d feel exhausted, weak, and fragile for the rest of the day.
In summary, I knew my anxiety attacks incredibly well. I knew my triggers. But that didn’t stop them doing their work. I’d let them take over and do what they had to do. What they wanted to do. I had no power over them. They were slow-building and had a very specific process, and in a way, that made them all the more terrifying. I knew what was coming.
I’ve only ever had one explosive panic attack. By ‘explosive’ I mean one that I couldn’t hide people from. I had no time to run away before it happened. It appeared in front of everyone. That's the one I want to talk about - that's the one I want to shame rather than it shame me.
There was no conscious trigger. I was sitting watching telly with my boyfriend at my parents’ house. My heart suddenly started racing, I could hear it, and the pulse in my neck felt like it was pounding its way out of my body. My whole body went numb in one hit, all the blood felt like it drained from my head, and I started shaking uncontrollably. This was all silent. I turned to my boyfriend and tried to say something. I couldn’t. I physically couldn’t speak. But the look on his face when he saw mine told me that he knew. He looked as terrified as I felt. He asked if I wanted to go upstairs, he tried to lift me out of the chair, but I was just a lump of flesh. I couldn’t move, and there was no time.
The wail that came out of me next wasn’t human. My mum came running in with the same look on her face as my boyfriend’s and just scooped me up. All I remember is crying ‘Ow, ow, ow!’ over and over again. This hurt. My body was a shaking numb mess, but my hands and feet stung, they were contorted in weird shapes, and my neck burned.
It didn’t last long. My painful cries turned to exhausted ones. I was bright red and dripping with sweat. My dad brought down a fan, my boyfriend fetched me water, and my mum just carried on holding me. I hadn’t cried in front of my family since I was tiny.
I never, ever want to experience that again.
But I know I might have to. I know what a panic attack is now, I know what it feels like. I know it can just kick you out of nowhere. It has no morals. It doesn’t care. Anxiety attacks are sick in how they like watching you react slowly. Panic attacks have no interest in you. They smack you down then fuck off. Ruthless.
So. There you go. My experience of anxiety attacks and panic attacks in 1,000 words. It's written down now. It's external, I've ripped it apart from me. I control it. Fuck you.
If you need any help with your mental health, please seek support from your GP, family, friends, or charities such as Mind. There's always someone there to help. Always.
Drawings featured by the wonderful rubyetc.