What I learned from my personal panic attack

First, my “credentials”…

I had my inaugural panic attack more than a month ago at UC Berkeley. How fitting. 

It was the week of the first power outages, and while everyone else was literally cheering about the canceled classes, I was stressing out. The schedule I carefully crafted to fill every hour of my day was suddenly moot thanks to PG&E. My sense of structure was gone, and I feared boredom and the depression that often followed. 

One night, a sharp pain traveled down the right side of my jaw, into my throat and spread into my chest. I thought I was having a stroke.

I couldn’t breathe, so I sat up in bed. Slowly, don’t move too fast. Don’t stand up, you’ll fall. I breathed in deeply because I felt I couldn’t breathe at all. In the process, I made myself dizzier. 

I decided to wait for the symptoms to pass. I didn’t want to call for help unless I knew that I was absolutely dying. 

But time passed, and I thought more and more about calling 911.

And suddenly the pain subsided. I laid back down exhausted and immediately fell asleep. The next morning, I woke up surprised to be alive.

I visited the Tang Center with a still-elevated heart rate. As I waited to be triaged, I Googled panic attacks. Though I had my suspicions, I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t due for a heart attack.

Alas, I was not.

Although I was physically OK, the doctor said panic attacks are red flags for subconscious underlying issues. Where were these panic attacks six years ago when I was on the cusp of adulthood trying to “find myself”? But who am I to argue with the physical manifestations of my mind?

And because University Health Services are backed up with other students, I learned … by way of the internet …

How to get through a panic attack

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill 

Before we get into useful coping techniques, there are essential things to know about this disorder. First of all: You’re not dying. But don’t be afraid of seeking emergency help if you feel as though you are. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, or NIMH, you may have panic disorder if you experience unexpected and recurring episodes of intense fear. Not all panic attacks are the same, however. There are myriad symptoms that people experience during episodes, including a racing heart, dizziness or faintness, chest pains, tingling or numbness in the hands, difficulty breathing, or a fear of dying or losing control. 

Out of the blue — that’s where a lot of panic attacks come from, according to NIMH. You could be enjoying a pleasant dinner with your loved ones, then boom — instant panic attack. Don’t drive yourself nuts trying to pinpoint the exact cause of a specific episode. There may not be one. 

“Unprovoked” and “unprompted” are key words to describe this disorder. In fact, an episode could be the sudden release of years of accumulated stress. Some of the related anxiety could be caused by the fear of having another panic attack. It is valid to fear having another episode. 

Six million people in the U.S. have this disorder, and women are twice as likely to develop the condition as men are, according to WebMD. Though it may feel as though you are solely going insane, take comfort in knowing that millions of people are right there with you. Also, you’re not going insane. 

And now for some “grounding” techniques …

If you are experiencing a panic attack, talk yourself through it. Remind yourself that you are in the midst of an episode. It’ll pass. 

The doctor at the Tang Center advises one to walk into another room, pick up a book or play a video game. Complete distraction may not be healthy, but it may prove useful with a dose of acknowledgment.

Try to control your breathing. Hyperventilating causes the dizzy spells. Breathe in deeply and hold for four seconds, then slowly breathe out. Close your eyes to focus. Read aloud if you’re having trouble. 

A common technique that people use to stay in the moment is counting down with your senses. Look for five things near you. Find four things you can touch. Listen for three things. Identify two things you can smell. Think about something you can taste.

If that doesn’t work, find your happy place. Try to imagine the sounds and physical feelings associated with that place. Though it may seem impossible to do at the moment, try to loosen up. Tense your body one muscle at a time and then relax.

Another method suggests putting your face in cold water and holding your breath. This is said to reduce your heart rate and direct blood to vital organs, making it easier to regulate emotions. An ice pack on your cheeks or the back of your neck can be used instead.

Most of all, be kind to yourself. Panic attacks are unique and so are the people who respond to them.

Finally, seek medical attention. Nothing you read online is a substitute for professional advice. 

When I went to the Tang Center, the doctor told me I was the second person that day seeking medical assistance because of panic attacks. It’s more normal than you think, and it’s apparently very treatable; you just have to take the first steps. 

Contact Vanessa Arredondo at [email protected].