Tag Archives: panic

Being diseased

I’ve made some considerable effort not to get covid – I wear masks when I can (I get panic attacks so sometimes I can’t wear them). I’m vaccinated. I stay out of crowds and I don’t do much indoor stuff with people. But here we are, and it is in me and has been in me for a few days.

At this point there are no legal requirements for me to behave in any specific way. There is only advice, like working from home if I can. Little wonder that I have it. Part of the problem here is that we have a fundamentally broken system when it comes to work. We expect people to go to work when they are ill – spreading diseases of all kinds, and slowing recovery. Working when ill is horrible. The person who can just take a few days off and rest will recover faster. But, a lot of workplaces will punish you for doing that. Most people can’t afford to be unpaid or to lose their jobs over taking care of their health.

I feel grim, but not as grim as other things have made me feel in recent years. I’m very tired, but I was very tired anyway so it’s hard to know if this is new and extra very tired, or pre-existing very tired. My concentration is rubbish, but it’s mostly been rubbish this year.

I’m looking at how body stressors add to my experiences of panic. I’m starting to think that my panic experiences aren’t just silly things happening in my head for no reason, and that panic might be what my body does when it starts to feel dangerously under-resourced. I’m usually the first person to assume I’m making a fuss and taking a thing far too seriously, but here I am with covid and it is by no means the most ill I have felt this year. 

What if the panic isn’t an over-reaction? What if the panic isn’t something I need to learn how to control, but a genuine and reasonable response to hazards? What if the problem is one of being under-resourced, not one of just making a fuss? Everything I’ve encountered on the mental health side assumes that panic is an over-reaction, and that the problem is the panicking, not whatever caused it. Last week I had panic attacks caused by being in more body pain than I could take. Maybe the fact of the panicking isn’t the problem here. Maybe I’m not just making a fuss over nothing, and maybe that’s even relevant when the things going on are more about mental health as well.


When Panic Becomes Dangerous

CW self harm

In theory, fear and anxiety are there to keep us safe. For the person who has been traumatised, this can lead to jumping at shadows, hypervigilism and flashbacks in ways that can really mess with your daily life. But still, the theory is good, the fear is learned, rational, reasonable and your brain is dealing appropriately with the threat level it is alert to. 

My panic does not exist to protect me. My panic exists to protect other people from me. It’s not a mystery how I got here – my ex did a very good job of persuading me that I was an awful person – cruel, manipulative, aggressive, unreasonable, ungrateful and causing him constant pain and difficulty. His words stay with me, and when I make mistakes, they loom large. It doesn’t help that this wasn’t my only experience of me being a terrible person, and it’s all there waiting for me any time I get anything wrong.

So instead of trying to protect myself, my panic has me hurting myself. Including having a lot of trouble eating or drinking. If I’m weak I am less of a threat to others. If I hurt myself, I’m not hurting someone else. At the worst extremes it leads to the idea that everyone would be better off if I didn’t exist.

It’s taken me a long time to understand this as a process. It’s not easy to think about the mechanics while it’s happening, and almost impossible to make any sense of it afterwards. But, I’ve had about a month now of intense panic, and that’s given me a lot of opportunities to notice things about the mechanics.

I’ve got a practical intervention in place – if I get the urge to hurt myself, I use resistance bands. At least that way the pain I inflict is helping me build stronger muscles, which I need anyway. Moving with them helps calm me, and I’ve managed to use them through really bad episodes where I felt that I did not deserve any kind of comfort or ease. This is one of the worst periods I’ve ever had for panic, but it’s also been the best managed around self harm and I feel encouraged by that.

I didn’t get here on my own. Not this episode, not this issue. I think this is often the way of it with emotional and psychological damage. The wounds come from outside. We don’t expect people to put their own broken arms into plasters or to sew up the gashes in their bodies. 


Freezing in the face of panic

Flight and fight responses to panic tend to be easy to spot. If not at the time, then at least with hindsight. Freezing isn’t so self announcing. It’s taken me a while to even identify when and why I respond that way because even from the inside it can be hard to spot.

From the outside, freezing is easily misread. All too often it is taken as a kind of passive consent to what’s happening. This is incredibly problematic around how we view victims of sexual assault. When the expectation is that victims will fight or flee, the victim who freezes is not considered credible. This urgently needs to change.

For me, the freezing process can take several forms.There’s a version where I flop like a rag doll and become totally dissociated from my body. This can include not being able to communicate at all. 

I’ve identified another form of freezing that involves a shutting down of executive function in my brain. I become unable to make decisions, and this has a paralysing effect. It’s been noticeable on a few occasions recently where I’ve become unable to interact with people on social media. I look at posts and I am unable to work out what would constitute an appropriate response. My brain will fire off many potential responses, but then I panic and am unable to make any decisions about how to proceed. This results in me just sitting there, frozen, inactive and overwhelmed with panic.

Most of the time my decision-making skills are good. I note however, that when anxiety gets its teeth into me, my ability to make decisions rapidly decreases. From the outside it might look a lot like the rag doll response, but mechanically speaking there are some very different things going on. Small decisions become impossible. Do I want a drink? I have no idea. 

I’ve found that when I’m frozen with panic, what makes the most difference is how the people around me behave. Plying me with warm drinks and bringing me comfort definitely helps. Making sensible decisions for me so that my body is taken care of during the time frame when I can’t make decisions. Not letting me crash my blood sugar because I’m unable to decide whether food is a good idea or what I should eat – that sort of thing.

I didn’t get here on my own. These responses are supposed to be defensive and they’ve had their uses in the past. They aren’t always useful now. The ideal solution is not to go there in the first place, but that depends a lot on how other people treat me. Where I can have conversations about what helps and what doesn’t, I get to feel safer and my vulnerability to panic decreases. Where my panic is met with kindness, I am less likely to panic. 

I mention this because I see so much content online about how unreasonable it is to ask people to accommodate your triggers. My experience is that when people are kind and supportive, my risk of being triggered diminishes considerably. There’s a lot we can get done with a little care and consideration.


Different flavours of panic

Not all panics are the same. I’ve been exploring the different ways in which panic shows up for me and what the implications are for dealing with it. Panic can happen for all sorts of reasons, and my list won’t be exhaustive or true for everyone but I hope by sharing it I can give someone else a place to start.

Hormone panics. I’m somewhere in the menopause sea (I have no idea where). I get intense hormone blasts sometimes, and they tend to make me panic. Recognising them as hormone-induced helps me weather them. Otherwise, soothing drinks are about the only thing I’ve found useful.

Overload panics. These happen when I’m exhausted, mentally or physically. Just hitting exhaustion can be enough to do it. If some extra thing needs doing when I’ve already hit my limits, this will also really panic me and make me largely useless. My best coping methods are to be clear with the people around me when I’m approaching the edges, and to be clear that I’m having overload panic if it kicks off. I have to accept that I can’t push through these to do the things, I have to wait until I’m better resourced and calmer.

Panic caused by triggers. These are often much harder to explain to anyone else while they’re happening because they bring up intense intrusive thoughts and flashbacks. The first priority is to get away from whatever seems unsafe. I’m working on being clearer with anyone who might come into contact with these that I need them to help me feel safe and to be quick to react if they’ve accidentally triggered me. Feeling safer will bring the panic down, and without that I’m stuck and can spiral through panic, intrusive thoughts and flashbacks for hours.

Triggered panics fall into two broad categories. One is where I feel to blame over things that aren’t my fault, or responsible for everything. The less power I have to sort things out, the more triggering this is. The second area is around loss of body autonomy. The conventional wisdom around this sort of panic is that it is down to the person experiencing it to work on recovering. On the whole I think I’d do a lot better without being triggered in the first place, so, I’m talking more about my boundaries, what its fair for me to take on, and what I need to have change. I’ve dealt with people in the past who triggered me and were very clear it wasn’t their job to do better. I’ve come to the conclusion that if anything of that shape happens again, I will remove those people from my life with all speed.

Part of what got me damaged in the first place was people ignoring boundaries and forcing unreasonable responsibilities on to me. This in turn makes it hard to flag up distress in those areas, making it harder for anyone who wants to not get into that kind of mess with me. With a back history full of being trained that people who hurt me were entitled to do that, I’m re-drawing my lines. People who want my time, care, energy and resources are going to have to treat me in ways that make that possible. Anyone who tells me they can’t be walking on eggshells all the time, or anything similar, will be out of the mix. I can’t afford it, and I recognise, finally, that no one is entitled to treat me as disposable in that way. Feeling worthless is part of what underpins the panic, but I do not have to accept being treated as worthless and I can say no.


If you respond by freezing

We normally talk about fear in terms of flight or fight responses. There are a lot of things we have evolved to deal with either by trying to punch them or trying to run away. However, in some circumstances, there’s a third response available – freezing. It’s less talked about and can be more confusing. Terrible things are happening and you just shut down, and do nothing.

Freezing is what we do when we’re overwhelmed. It’s a response to situations in which there is nothing we can physically fight off, and nowhere to run to. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are experiencing freeze in response to the virus.

If you can’t focus your mind, can’t figure out what to do, are panic-scrolling on Twitter, half asleep all the time or feeling distanced from everything, this is the process you are in. Rest, time and distraction will help you move past it. This is a natural and reasonable response. It may feel confusing right now, but the answer is to be gentle with yourself and wait it out.

People who have already experienced trauma can find they are prone to freezing responses. Brutal lessons about your own powerlessness will do this to a person.

Hopefully there is a lesson we can all learn here for the longer term. Freezing is a normal response to being powerless. It is why many victims of violence, and especially of rape, do not fight back or manage to escape. Sometimes our bodies just shut down – it can have a protective function, helping us mentally distance ourselves from traumatic things. Understanding how this works will help us be more compassionate with ourselves, and with each other.


Dealing with night terrors

Anxiety when it comes in the night can be particularly hard to deal with. It may be less troubling than anxiety at times when we’re more visible, but it is also harder to manage. The tired mind isn’t as easy to control. When you’re awake, it is easier to try and reason with your own panicking mind. When awake, strategies can be deployed – be that breathing techniques, or visualisations, or just leaving the building.

In the middle of the night, in your bed attire, with everyone else asleep, or perhaps alone, it is difficult to fight your way out of panic. Waking into panic is especially hard because you get no conscious warning and there is no time to deploy tools or even brace yourself.

If it happens rarely, it’s a hard thing to prepare for as well. If it comes round more often, it pays to develop a plan when you can think about it properly. Decide what you might be going to do – because when you’re sweating with night terrors and barely awake, you’ll have trouble coming up with anything useful.

I find it helps to move. If you just lie there with nothing to distract you, it is easier for the terrors to keep chewing on you. Moving your body can help ground you and if the terror is vague, just the action of getting up and drinking some water can help push it away.

If that’s not enough, I go for distraction. The internet is a great blessing to me at these times, and there’s often a friend or two from some other part of the world online in the wee small hours. Random chats have rescued me on many occasions. I find things to read. If I’m more awake, I might go for a book. There’s no point trying to reason with my brain if I’m tired, but distraction often works.

I give myself an hour. If I can’t get it under control in that time frame, I wake my chap up. I don’t like waking people up, but if the panic is too intense for me to cope with on my own, this is the better call. Sometimes a calm, sane person who can talk you down makes all the difference. In the night, my fears can be incredibly irrational, and I can know they are irrational and still not be able to challenge them. I latch onto small problems and wake up convinced that they are perilous and disastrous and it’s hard getting out of that by myself.

That said, anxiety isn’t utterly irrational even when the focus of it is ridiculous. It troubles me how CBT and other ‘cures’ start from the assumption that you have nothing to fear and need to stop being silly. Anxiety exists either because of something historical that still haunts you, or something contemporary that threatens you, or both. Taking it seriously and trying to put it into perspective is more productive than dismissing it. If the superficial anxiety seems ridiculous, it could be because something else is underlying it. It can also be hormonal, and I know much of what I’m experiencing relates to the menopause. This too is an entirely real experience that needs taking seriously, even if it is manifesting as irrational panic. It seems to come from excess stress in my waking life, even if the rest of the time I feel like I’m on top of it.

If we lived in a kinder culture, with gentler working practices, this would all be so much easier to deal with. The sleepless night would not lead to the terrible day, and that in turn would give us less to fear.


The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.

 


Comfort and discomfort

This weekend has brought a radical change of thinking for me, so I’m going to share it on the off-chance someone else finds it useful.

Triggering and panic attacks are big issues for me. Less of a problem than they used to be, but still things I have to navigate through. I know that people can trigger me in all innocence. They can do things that look like other things and panic me. My panic is not the measure of whether someone else is a good person or not. So, for years now, I’ve tried very hard to manage my reactions so that I don’t upset someone who has accidentally triggered me.

My experience of talking to people (usually, but not always men) who have triggered me is that many resent being asked to do differently and have expressed the idea that its unfair being held responsible for dealing with the consequences of something they didn’t cause. I’ve heard that and taken it onboard.

It means that much of my behaviour in response to panic and distress is about trying to keep other people comfortable. It’s not been about my comfort, or what I need to do to heal. Some of it is because I feel safer if I keep the men I’m dealing with comfortable. Thankfully the men I live with are not an issue on this score and are willing to hear, change and support. My safety is not dependant on their comfort. But in any other situation, if there’s a tension between my comfort and someone else’s, I tend to feel that asking for my issues to be heard is risky and may make things worse, not better.

This is where I’ve decided to make radical change. I never feel comfortable dealing with people who trigger me and expect me to deal with that. Even when they aren’t setting me off, I don’t feel safe and I am always on edge. I’m going to stop putting myself in those situations. I am not going to show up, or if I really can’t dodge it, I am going to get out at need. I’m going to stop investing energy in trying to make comfortable the people who make me uncomfortable.

If they call me a drama queen, or they say I am making it all about me, or being unfair to them, as has happened before in such situations, maybe I’ll just agree. And get out of the situation. I do not have to feel emotionally responsible. I do not have to feel obliged to comfort and reassure people who discomfort and unnerve me. I do not have to make their opinions the measure of whether my feelings or needs are even valid. It occurs to me that I don’t even have to get this right, or be fair or reasonable, that I can say no because I want to, and that I do not even need to justify it.


Acting on emotions

Few things wind me up more than people who do something crap, and when called on it, say it was just an unconsidered, off the cuff, spur of the moment thing. As though that somehow excuses it. It can be useful to know there was no conscious malice, but for me, lack of care and attention is also an issue.

We have experiences. We have emotional responses to those experiences. We get a choice, usually, about how we express those emotional responses. People who are triggered into panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks don’t get a choice about how that manifests, and need as much slack cutting as possible. People whose trauma makes them respond in ways that make no sense to onlookers need kindness and patience. There’s a great deal of difference between that kind of response though, and one that comes from carelessness.

Something happens, and you have feelings. Do you give yourself permission to act on those feelings? This, for me, is one of the big problems with too much living in the moment – that it discourages people from contextualising their behaviour or taking proper responsibility for it.

Small children react based on what they feel. They do so with no perspective – they have none after all. They do so with no consideration for how their screaming, violence, destruction or tears may impact on anyone else. We teach small children perspective, and they learn it from experience. If you are a decent carer, you teach children about how their behaviour impacts on others, about what’s fair and reasonable, and what isn’t.

And yet, so many adults still do the equivalent of throwing all of the toys out of the pram when they don’t get their own way. I assume that in part this comes from a sense of entitlement and a belief that their feels must be the most important thing. I wonder also if it is to do with attention.

For small children, attention from adults functions as a reward. If the adult attention comes from acting out, you keep doing it. Attention for tantrums, and screaming fits and making yourself vomit can be a real incentive to keep going with that. In school, the worst behaved children can be motivated by a desire for attention from classmates and teachers, and may not believe they can get that attention any other way.

An adult who gets their own way for having a tantrum is an adult with every incentive to keep having tantrums. We learn to do more of what works. If we’re rewarded for crying, we’ll cry. If we’re rewarded for stoicism, we won’t let anyone see those tears. If making drama puts us centre stage, we’ll make drama. None of us exists in a vacuum, and who we are can so easily be shaped by how other people respond to us. Still, anyone can choose at any time. We do not have to live out the unconscious consequences of how we’ve been taught to behave.

We do not have to do anything. We do not have to respond to feeling angry by shouting, hitting or breaking things. We do not have to scream and shout when things don’t go our way. Equally, we do not have to hide our grief or always act like everything is fine no matter what. We can choose. In those seconds when an emotion happens to us, we can make conscious choices about how best to express it. We can take a breath and imagine the consequences. We might go so far as to imagine how our reactions may in turn cause reactions in others. We can choose to act in ways that will not lead us into spirals of aggression. If you think someone else’s behaviour is making you act in a certain way, you need to take back control.

We can feel all of our emotions wholeheartedly without ever giving them control of our personal steering wheels.


Panic, breath and meditation

I’d been aware of the theory that panic and breath-orientated meditation doesn’t always go well, but until recently, I’d never encountered it. The experience of what was probably bronchitis coupled with several days of intense panic from stressful things, did things to my body. I found that so long as I wasn’t thinking about my breath, I was fine, but if I became aware of it, I couldn’t do it. Cue gasping frantically.

This was especially bad on the edge of sleep, because there aren’t many things a person can do with their brain. At that point, not being aware of my body proved very hard indeed, and the panicked bouts of fighting to breathe, and fighting to convince my body that it could breathe, were many. It made me realise how much my meditation practice is underpinned by breathwork. I had no real tools to deal with a situation where I needed to focus my mind on something other than my breath. However, necessity is a great teacher.

What I discovered is that I can go from cold, straight into a visualisation or pathworking. I have to plan it carefully in advance, and to make the leap straight into a deep meditative state, the subject matter has to be emotionally engaging. And then, it’s like making an enormous, perilous jump, but I managed it repeatedly. An arrowshot of intent and concentration, taking the mind away from the body so that the body could keep on with the breathing, untroubled.

I also learned that this kind of trick can be pulled when sharp and clever, but that an exhausted, sleep deprived mind can’t do it, and at that point, valerian is the better answer, or anything else you might use to knock yourself out of a night.

I’ve never felt so at odds with myself as I did during the week of not being able to think about breathing. Body and mind were functioning as two distinct systems, very much at odds with each other. It was an unnerving experience in all kinds of ways, and I hope never to have it again. It’s another example of how you can’t use meditation as a quick fix – this only worked for me because I have a long history of working with visualisation and had a skill set to draw on. Quite possibly this also went wrong for me because I have a long history of breathwork.