I'm a final-year PhD student, and I have Panic Attacks.
Unfortunately, panic attacks are often dismissed as “bad stress”, something which could be easily cured by “taking a breather.” Due to this stigma, some people may have experienced panic attacks but are uninformed or reluctant to seek help. In sharing one panic attack experience, I hope to reach at least one person.
Let me break down the onset of my anxiety that fateful Saturday. I’m going to explicitly describe my thoughts, while in real-time, they feel more like abstract concepts rather than coherent sentences. Despite the fact that I had a fairly productive work week prior, I started to feel guilty for painting our new house when I could be doing research-related activities. My mind said, “you only have 10 months left, you need to finish data collection, write papers, finish milestones, compile your dissertation, find a post-doc, build a personal website, organize your CV, take a class, maintain collaborative responsibilities....” but not in clear words.
Instead, my anxious thoughts are foggy, fleeting, and cruel. Imagine standing in the middle of a fog so dense that you can barely make out your feet. Suddenly, an unseen bird swoops in behind you, yelling, in your own voice, “CV”. You then subconsciously add context - “you idiot, it’s been months and you haven’t updated your CV”. You might have time to shake off the intentions of the first bird, but soon a second follows yelling, “Post-Doc”, and then a third, “calculations”, and another, “class”, and another, “collaborations”.... Then one bird flashes a smiling picture of friends graduating that very day while yelling “NEVER”, meaning “never for you”. The birds start to come faster, their words repeating, getting louder, their intentions more malicious; you have less time to process the thoughts which means your internal language becomes harsher.
For me, this cruel mental dive-bombing of a “to-do list” is a part of my everyday life. However, some days, this mental Hitchcockian drama sparks physical symptoms that can result in a panic attack.
Biologically, a panic attack occurs when mental distress triggers your sympathetic nervous system to enter fight-or-flight mode. Your mind becomes fixated on thoughts that present the “threat”, to which your body is evolutionarily trained to respond. (Little does your body know, we live in a SOCIETY, and we no longer need to face bears on the regular.) Adrenaline courses through your veins, your heart races, and your chest tightens, causing rapid, shallow breaths. I hunch over, cover my face with my hands, and soon a headache will arise in my brows and eye sockets. My vision “tunnels,” the corners becoming fuzzy and white.
Panic attacks can be very real threats to a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. If you are unable to curtail these physical symptoms, you may end up hyperventilating, becoming dizzy or nauseous, and, in the absolute worst cases, blacking out. Thankfully, I have my husband to help me, medication, and techniques from my therapist to regain control after panic symptoms start.
Usually my panic attacks start with the fleeting negative thoughts that last up to 2 hours. Over that time, the physical symptoms arise gradually, and if I’m not careful, I might not be able to tell panic is setting in. If I catch the symptoms early enough, I can take my panic medication to slow the sympathetic nervous system. In that time, I will do some of the following things to “ground” myself: (1) run outside, (2) deep breathing exercises, (3) draw, or (4) feverishly write down the dive-bombing thoughts. Writing often helps concretize the thoughts, taking away their abstract power. If I can do all of these before the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, then I typically regain control. However, if I’m already entering “fight-or-flight,” I’m likely about to have a panic attack. All together, depending how early I intervene, this event may take 1-2 hours, with 10 minutes at its most intense of panic and then another 10 minutes for a “slow-down” period at the end.
This past Saturday was no different. The fleeting thoughts started, and I kept trying to dismiss them while doing housework. I realized my dismissal attempts weren’t working when I walked into the kitchen three times, each time forgetting what I needed; I was unable to focus on anything besides the foggy, fleeting, and cruel thoughts. I took my panic medication, sat down, and verbal-vomited my stressors to my husband. I wrote the stressors in my journal and tried deep breathing exercises, but my sympathetic nervous system was already in overdrive. I breathed deeply through tears.
Before the readers become too upset, I’d like to explain - I was panicked for no reason. I have plenty of publications and presentations. I am on track with my milestones. I have 10 months to graduate. My PI has many insider connections for me to land a post-doc. I have a home, amazing family and friends, and a loving, successful husband. So why was I panicked? Because I spent 2 extra hours painting the master-bathroom of our newly purchased house?!
Yes. That is anxiety. Constant worry for no logical reason; worry that cannot be abetted by normal coping mechanisms and may disrupt a person’s ability to function.
I must note that not everyone’s panic attack experience is the same. For example, I describe my thoughts as “foggy and fleeting,” while others describe theirs as “racing” or “circling”. For years, I didn’t know what these intense moments of mental fixation, panic, and sobbing were - I just thought, “ah, stress is stress”.
In effect, anxiety strugglers each experience things a little differently, and the only person who can truly tell would be your doctor. If you think you might be experiencing panic attacks, please make an appointment to see a doctor. They can evaluate your particular condition and direct you to a specialist who can help. You are no good to the scientific community if you aren’t taking care of yourself and your mind.