Tag Archives: panic

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.


Trigger anxieties

No one wants to be triggered. No one wants a panic attack, or a flashback, or any of the revisiting of fear and pain a trigger can bring. Alongside this, being triggered can become a fearful thing too, because of how other people react to it. This may well not be an exhaustive list.

Fear of being mocked, ridiculed and humiliated. Special Snowflake. Drama Queen. Attention seeker.

Fear that others will see you as weak, lacking in self control, over-reacting or unreasonable.

Fear of your triggering being used to prove some point – that you are useless, incapable, unreliable, attention seeking, fuss making… and thus shouldn’t be allowed something. As though what happens when you are triggered is a fair measure of you as a person.

Fear that the panic will be a justification to do something to you – remove power, jobs, titles, autonomy, children, opportunities.

Fear that if you talk to someone about having been triggered they will be hostile. Fear that they will react as though you are accusing them of something horrible even if you’re just asking for help. Fear of finding you can’t trust someone you thought you could trust, that they resent being asked to walk on eggshells. It’s hard to talk about this without making people uncomfortable. If you have poor self esteem, fear of making other people uncomfortable may seem more important than not being triggered by them. Fear of damaging relationships may make it tempting not to even say there’s a problem. Fear of the anger of the person who is cross with you because you made a fuss about being triggered.

None of these are hypothetical scenarios. I’ve either seen them happening or experienced them first hand. I think a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding about what triggering means. This is not helped by a mainstream media prone to ridiculing things like trigger warnings. There are a lot of people out there suffering from trauma. We can choose to add to that, or we can choose to try and help each other as best we can.


In the aftermath of anxiety

A panic attack can be a rather self announcing thing. It has inherent drama, so it can be possible for people not experiencing the panic to tell that something is going on. However, the aftermath of a panic attack is also a difficult time, and it is far harder to see what’s going on then, so I thought it might be a useful thing for me to talk about.

The physical symptoms can persist. Raised heart rate, tight chest, difficulty breathing – these things can go on for hours, even days after a big panic attack. It feels awful and can lead to the fear that something has gone wrong at a bodily level. I’ve never been clear how you’re supposed to tell between panic and heart attack warning signs. Those of us who suffer panic are told to ignore what others are told to take seriously.

There can be a huge emotional backlash. It invariably leaves me feeling like I’m stupid, irrational and I’m embarrassed by my loss of control. I hate not being able to control what I’m doing. I get anxious that people will not take me seriously, or will think it’s a stunt, a bid for attention, an attempt at emotional blackmail. Often as a consequence I will become withdrawn afterwards, especially when I don’t know how people are responding to me.

Once panic has been triggered, it is easier to re-panic me. This can lead to incredibly vicious cycles where it gets ever harder to stop panicking. Without calm and respite, panic can get seriously out of control.

Exhaustion is a common part of the backlash. Emotional and bodily exhaustion can be severe and can last for days. The desire to just down tools and go to bed is huge. When things are really bad, a massive panic attack can result in the no energy, not coping outcome of a big round of depression.

If you are dealing with a person who suffers from panic, then the best way to find out how to help them is to ask. On the whole, taking people seriously and treating them kindly makes a lot of odds. However, as panic is often related to abuse experiences, make sure that what you do to help doesn’t seem controlling, doesn’t give the sufferer the feeling that they are so useless they can’t take care of themselves, doesn’t patronise or demean them. Those of us who are ok with being touched can be significantly soothed through long hugs, but never hug without asking. Unsolicited body contact can be a panic trigger. Bring drinks, reduce noise, remove threats, talk calmly, give space and time.

Triggers are tricky things. Someone else’s triggers may make no sense to you, and you may feel that the time it takes them to recover is unreasonable. This is because it isn’t your trigger, or your history, or your body, and it is important to bear that in mind when dealing with someone in distress.


The mechanics of panic

I have recently learned several things about the mechanics of panic, and thought I would share as they might be useful to others.

Fight or flight reactions are part of how we are wired up, and come from our entirely evolutionary history. Stressful situations get our bodies gearing up to fight or flight – for me it’s pretty much entirely a flight impulse. Suppressing those impulses to stay in a situation that does not feel safe, increases my risk of a panic attack. I am suspicious that panic attacks may to a very large degree be the result of not acting on my flight impulses.

If I am emotionally distressed, my automatic response is to try and hide that – the reasons are many, but the impact is that it puts extra stress on my body when my body is already in a state of distress. Physically shutting down my reactions and allowing no space for them in order to stay in a situation that I find distressing, and seem calm and tolerable to anyone distressing me, is perhaps not the cleverest way to go.

If I don’t deal with what’s actually happening, by leaving, by protecting myself, or by allowing my own emotional responses, things get worse for me. Massively worse. I’m starting to see a panic attack as a kind of violence, a reaction to what is suppressed from a body that simply cannot handle any more suppression. This is a backlash, I cannot deal with it or control it by trying to manage the symptoms. To avoid panic attacks, I need to look harder at what I do when I am distressed, or when my urge is to run away. Probably I need to start letting myself run away, or howl when I need to.

My priority has been to minimise the effect of my panic attacks on other people. To avoid being a nuisance. I pay for this. I pay for it in the shutting down of my overloaded body, and the days of feeling battered and dislocated that follow. Doing differently may make me very difficult to deal with, for other people. I may not be socially viable. I may be better off being more of a hermit, and more able to breathe, and concentrating on the spaces where I do feel safe.


Observations on breaking

I am fascinated by the limits of my mind and body and what happens when I get there. Because I am a bit shattered, my concentration is shot and I’m having trouble holding clear lines of thought. Forgive me if this is a less coherent post than usual.

Aspect one is pain, of which I have a lot just now. I know why, some if it will improve in the next few days, which may help sort the rest. But, yesterday, I hit the kind of pain levels that mess with my brain. I can tune out small pain, cuts, blisters, etc barely register. It’s funny because I haven’t lost my thinking to pain this way since the early stages of labour. Watching my mind fragment, my lines of thought disintegrate. Today is a bit better, but blogging is hard work. I’m stopping more to pick up my threads. The words are not flowing.

Aspect two is panic. I’ve spent years with fear. I’m better than I was in that I no longer start every day waking into a full blown panic attack, but small panic bursts are still a daily occurrence. It doesn’t help that post remains a panic trigger. I’m working on that. Something for another day, perhaps. So the adrenaline fear spike is part of my inner landscape. Was that a mixed metaphor? Not sure, keep pedalling… fear is part of what I get. Only I seem to have broken the adrenaline side, and this may not be a good thing. Fear, since yesterday, has been arriving more like a slap in the face with a wet sock. I experience something, but not what I normally get, and it doesn’t feel like healing because the fear is still there. Early days, and only a suspicion that you can burn out an adrenal system. No insight really.

So on a normal day, my sense of self owes a lot to my emotional responses. How I feel about things is part of what makes me recognisably me. That’s not working properly. The pain and fear responses are… weird. I know I’ve been hit by a bout of depression – that at least is behaving in a normal way, unfortunately, ‘normal’ for depression tends to include a deadening of self in the first place.

The other key thing for me is that normally I have a very clear and coherent flow of thoughts. The inside of my head is normally like narration in a book in terms of coherence and clarity. This is a defining feature of my sense of self. I usually know exactly what I am thinking and why, and I think my way through and round everything I encounter. This is intrinsic to my sense of self. The absence of it is disconcerting. Wandering about with no coherence, not feeling like someone I recognise. Disorientated, lost. Not knowing if it stays like this or how things go from here. Needing to work, needing to be functional, and everything is so much more difficult than it ought to be.

Odd, finding that my identity was made of a few flashes of brain chemistry and my ability to hold an inner monologue. No idea who I am without that, and surprised to realise how fragile and barely real I was all along, and how easily that sense of self falls apart.