We’ve been talking a lot about the monster within lately, when you feel like a monster and what happens inside your body and brain when you’re feeling that way. And most of what those posts have discussed is the experience of being angry. Which is big. But what we haven’t talked about yet and really need to is FEAR.
All of the same stuff applies in terms of the nerdy brain structures (limbic system and amygdala), chemistry (adrenaline and cortisol) and bodily reactions (increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, shortness of breath, etc), but we interpret all of these things much differently because instead of wanting to kill someone (not truly of course), we’re terrified. And perhaps not even sure why. So let’s talk about that….
The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when I stumbled upon a video. For any of you who use Facebook, I don’t have to tell you that the videos in your feed start to play without audio as soon as you scroll by them. So this video started of people waiting in some kind of line in some kind of store and suddenly a woman is carrying what appears to be a very young child who is totally limp in her arms.
Confused (and alarmed), I began to read the description of the video, which said, “A 2-year-old girl in a Perth IGA became unconscious and stopped breathing Sunday. The store’s a CCTV camera shows the girl’s mother, Amy Collard, coming toward a cashier line from the aisle carrying her daughter’s limp body.”
A small voice in my head that felt very far away and muffled said, “Stop reading!! Stop watching!!”, but it was almost like I couldn’t change my behavior. I could feel that tiny, far away part of me starting to freak out a bit, but it was like watching a train wreck: I could not take my eyes off this video. Within a minute or two, this toddler’s lifeless body is thrown onto the check out station for a man to begin CPR on her. I think it was at this point (although I don’t really remember which happens quite a bit when you’re freaking the eff out), that tiny voice got louder and forced my fingers to turn off the screen on my phone. And once my phone was off, I started to realize what was happening.
I was starting to have a panic attack.
My breathing was rapid and shallow, the start of hyperventilation. My heart was beating out of my chest. I was crying and wasn’t even aware of it. I began to experience tunnel vision, where it feels like your range of vision is getting more narrow by the second. I felt hot and flustered.
And again, that small but helpful voice buried somewhere under the panic reminded me that this is simply the start of a panic attack and all I needed to do is breathe.
So I did.
I closed my eyes and focused all of my energy on taking slow, low, deep breaths through my nose and within a couple of minutes, the panic reaction ended.
Whew! Crisis averted. Now what the hell happened??
Well we know what happened literally speaking. My brain was super freaked out about this horrifying video (the girl is just fine btw, thank god!!!) and flipped shit. Amygdala took over and I was totally unable to be rational about the situation and instead had to initially ride out my reaction until I realized what was happening and could circumvent it.
And why did my brain flip out about this? Well that’s pretty easy too: I have two young children and while there are few things that I seriously worry about regarding them, the one thing I worry about quite a bit is their health and safety. So seeing a child the age of my oldest lifeless for no goddamn reason in the middle of a perfectly normal day in a perfectly normal store shook me up. Bad.
Makes sense. But if you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’re probably curious about what you can learn from this. So here we go:
1) Know your triggers. For me, anything that reminds me that something awful could happen to my children is going to trigger me. It’s a soft spot for me. Which is good to know because knowing that, I can mentally prepare myself when I anticipate that I might hear, see or be reminded of that. And awareness is half the battle.
2) Know your brain and body. Do you have any idea what is going on in your brain and body most of the time? If not, start observing. Get your doctorate in YOU. In fact, take a moment right now and check in with yourself. What’s on your mind? What kinds of things are you thinking about? What emotions are you feeling? What’s happening in your body? Do you feel physically relaxed? Are you muscle tense and bothering you? Once checking in with yourself become habit, you’ll be able to notice what could turn into really intense feelings before they actually get intense.
3) Once you notice something is amiss, BREATHE. Slow, low, deep breaths through your nose. Look for a detailed post on that coming up, but for now know that slow, low, deep breaths will short circuit a panic/anxiety response.
4) If you’re really freaking out, it will help to focus on something other than the upsetting thoughts. Breathing wouldn’t have done me a whole lot of good I just kept picturing that little girl’s lifeless body or thinking about something bad happening to my own kiddos. So pick a spot on the wall or floor and stare at it hard. Or come up with something to say over and over again like “all I need to do is breathe” or “I’m going to be just fine”.
Now if you have panic attacks on a regular basis, worry about having more of them or change your behavior significantly because of them (hard time leaving the house, avoid potential triggers, etc), then this article isn’t getting it done and you might need treatment. Feel free to visit me on my website if you’re interested in scheduling an appointment to learn how to get rid of these emotional roller coasters.
Do you know what your triggers are? What makes you irrationally angry or super scared? Tell me about it on my Facebook page!