There is a fairly strict taboo in the UK that mental health issues are not generally discussed. It is entirely satisfactory to mention that you have a bad cold, but not that you are suffering from anxiety, or depression, or are hearing voices. It is a cue for the listener to avoid the person and make a hasty retreat.
Partly for this reason, and partly a result of an acutely bad choice of words that the mental health impact of ‘panic attacks’ are rarely listened to with the sympathy they are due.
You will know if you have had a panic attack. You may not know it by that name, but will have had the fright of your life from such an attack. In one sense, it is a panic attack, but this simply does not convey the severity of its impact. I believe that the word terror is closer to the experience. I saw the doctor after my first, having measured my heart rate at 120 in the small hours of that morning in bed. I had lain there with dizzy head and racing heart feeling totally convinced that I was having a heart attack or was simply about to die. Does a ‘panic attack’ properly describe such feelings? I think not.
At the time, I has assumed that the cause was the medication I was taking. Since then, recurrences have similarly frightened the life out of me, a long time after terminating that medication.
A ‘panic attack’ is a feeling of anxiety whipped up into a crescendo of a peak. It is a response by the body to a sustained anxiety state. It occurs almost randomly, unrelated to thinking or activity. I can assure you that waking from a dream state into the very high anxiety state that precedes a panic attack is rapid and totally unnerving.
Fortunately, in spite of the massive bombardment of emotional and physical urgency that accompanies a panic attack, I can often detach myself enough to realise that it is an overreaction. The mental discipline to do this is hugely demanding – at the very time when your energies are almost completely engaged by the attack. A great catch-22 situation!
So the next time someone tells you they had a panic attack, you will realise that this is not just that they panicked that they left the front door unlocked. Instead, they had been overtaken by a massive feeling of impending physical doom. Give them sympathy.