If you suffer from panic attacks, you know you’re in absolute misery. So why is it that so many people can’t seem to understand?
It would be so much easier if you had a broken leg, or a clearly visible wound. Then, your friends or family would be able to easily see the injury, and say, “Wow, that looks really painful.” Unfortunately, a panic attack is fairly invisible to any onlooker.
What does this mean? Your limbs are intact. Your skin looks healthy. All the suffering you are experiencing is internal. It’s often difficult for people to understand what you’re going through. As a result, panic attack sufferers often feel acutely alone. Not only are they suffering from this horrible terror and actual bodily symptoms — in addition, the people around them are clueless! It often feels like nobody understands.
People might say, “just relax.” Inside your head, you’re screaming: “Sure, sure, are you kidding?!” Or perhaps a friend might say, “Just think about something else.” And you’re thinking — “How am I supposed to do that when I’m afraid of dying?! Or when my brain is racing like crazy and I feel like I’m going to lose my mind?!?”
Maybe you make a valiant effort to relax, or distract yourself– but it doesn’t work. Then, when you are unsuccessful, the people around you perhaps get frustrated, feel powerless because they are trying to help you, or perhaps they even get angry–thinking you’re not trying hard enough.
But of course, you are trying as hard as you can. The problem is that panic attacks are an extreme, fight-or-flight, actual survival reaction: your adrenalin is pumping and you can no more easily flip the switch to turn it off in a moment, as you could lift up a fist to a tsunami. It is a physiological impossibility.
And perhaps you’ve had the experience already — that if your loved ones become frustrated or angry, it is likely that your anxiety increases and panic attacks become more frequent.
You might try explaining it like this: “Imagine an angry grizzly bear is barreling through this door right now… and you are trapped inside. How would you feel? Would your heart be racing? Would you be terrified? Well, that’s how I feel when I have a panic attack!”
Often, early in treatment, I may ask for the client’s mate, or family member, or closest friend to join us in a session. This is very helpful to the client, for then I can provide a more in-depth explanation of what panic attacks are, and exactly how they feel. I will also help the family member to feel more effective in helping the client, should a panic attack occur.