Person having a panic attack amidst a faceless crowd

I consider myself to be extremely lucky that despite having to live with this constant, sometimes debilitating anxiety as part of my bipolar disorder I have friends who have and continue to support me. Although I have always known this and am reminded of it regularly in the little things like a text message to check how I am doing, or a slightly longer hug hello or goodbye, or a reassuring smile, I am also reminded of it in the bigger things they do to support me too.

Last night was one of these examples, and I want to share it so if you too have a friend who has anxiety and/or panic attacks you can use these ideas to support them. However, I have learned that everyone is different and may not respond to the same support.

Before I share the things these friends have done on more than one occasion to support me during a panic attack I want to add a little context, as if you have never experienced a panic attack yourself it is hard to imagine what it can feel like.

Panic attacks can come in all shapes and sizes and can vary person to person or situation to situation. They can be the more obvious type that include hyperventilating, feeling faint and sweaty or nauseous, but they can also take a more hidden form where the person may be distant and withdrawn and unable to engage or interact. Whatever form they take, they are just as scary and the person cannot just switch them off.

I have experienced both of the above types as well as times where the two have been mixed. Although I know certain situations can trigger them, they do not always occur in that situation and sometimes they can spring from nowhere unexpectedly.

Last night I experienced a mix of the two in a situation where I knew I would struggle. I could not prevent it, I could not switch it off or snap out of it. I had to ride it out, but the support of friends made that easier to do. So if you wish to support someone in a similar situation, here is what they did that worked for me:

1. If you know a situation is likely to be difficult for someone you care about do not try to convince them to avoid it. I wanted to go out last night. It was important that I went. I wanted to be there for the friend celebrating a new job. If I hadn’t have gone I would have hated myself more. Instead, my friends supported me by arranging to pick me up so I didn’t have to arrive on my own.

2. Help them spot triggers. They knew the trigger as well as I did, and although panic attacks cannot always be prevented, even just to know that someone else knows and understands can help.

3. Give them space but not too much. Last night I left the situation when I needed air. I needed a few moments alone to gather my thoughts. They gave me these few minutes, then came to check in with me. This was really important for me as I would not have been able to re-enter the situation again alone.

4. Take time. Encourage them to breathe, be with them, hold them tight. Often in the midst of a panic attack I tend to dissociate from where I am. A tight hug helps ground me and can help get my breathing back into sync.

5. Just be there and reassure them they are safe – don’t try to rationalize or play it down. It isn’t always rational, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I can stop it. It may start from one single thought and then spreads until I am questioning every single thing, replaying every single situation, imaging the worst about anything that could happen (multiple worst-case scenarios), remembering other things (unrelated) that worry me and doing the same with these things and worrying what people are thinking of me while doing all of these things. My friends don’t try to make me explain or repeatedly tell me it won’t happen.

6. Recognize it, but don’t draw attention to it. They can see it coming better than I can but are also discrete. When I shut off and withdraw, I need time. Last night they kept the conversation going, offering a distraction but also letting me know they recognized I was struggling. Again I often need grounding, so a tight grip on my hand or firm touch on my arm or leg reminds me they are there and I am not alone.

7. Don’t judge – this is the one I find most difficult as I constantly judge myself and condemn my own behavior, seeking to punish it later. Their acceptance lessens this for me because I know there is no need to explain to them, which would be hard because often I don’t even know.

8. Last one – know that they are not their illness, and don’t give up on them. Keep inviting them out.

So, there are my top tips based on what my friends have done for me during a panic attack. Having said that, there is no rule book, and I am truly blessed to have found two wonderful people who understand and accept and want to be my friend regardless. And although I have been able to describe this in some sort of understandable way here for this support group, it saddens me that I will never be able to find the words to explain to them how exactly perfect their support is and how much I completely value it.

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Illlustration by Elisabetta Stoinich


I started reading the Dalai Lama’s teachings to reduce my anger and irritability (often due to my intrusive thoughts and anxiety.) His teachings really help me in my attempt to self heal and be a mentally healthier person. These are my takeaways from his teachings:

1. Stressing out about something inevitable or something that will never happen is useless.

I know it doesn’t solve anxiety, but it is good to remember this when anxiety starts setting in and makes us feel like everything is out of control.

2. Dialogue is the way to solve conflict.

It is extremely important to talk about our mental illnesses in order to get help.

3. We need to find a way to respect everyone.

Try to find respect for the people who do not understand our illness, because negative thoughts hurt ourselves more than it hurts the people who misunderstand us.

4. Your wellness depends on the people around you.

As a person with a mental illness, you need to find a community, rather than staying isolated. We are interdependent.

5. The physical world has limits but our mental growth does not.

It is important to keep busy and grow as a person, through achievements to keep our minds healthy, even when our mind is sick.

6. Better education is the solution to everything.

This includes mental health awareness and mental illness.

7. Our similarities are greater than our differences.  

Mental illness does not discriminate regardless of age, race or class.

8. Compassion is important.

With the number of people who have different mental illnesses, it is important to have compassion for each other and understand you are not alone in your suffering.

9. When we focus on ourselves, our problems seem bigger, but when we focus on others, our problems seem smaller.

I know it’s wrong to say some people have it worse, but the Dalai Lama says it helps to focus on others. I think getting involved in helping our community can help us feel included and less isolated with our problems.

10. We are so much more than our mortal body.

Our body and brain will fail us but we are so much more than them. It doesn’t mean we have to stop trying because we can still grow spiritually and through our actions.

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Image via Dalai Lama’s Facebook

I have touched on my fear of using telephones before, but would like to go into it in more detail. According to Wikipedia, “Telephone phobia (telephonophobia, telephobia, phone phobia) is reluctance or fear of making or taking phone calls, literally, ‘fear of telephones.’ It is considered to be a type of social phobia or social anxiety.

hate using the phone. I can count the number of people I can confidently talk to on the phone using just one hand. I much prefer text, email or Facebook messenger. Any of these are fine because then I have time to think about what to say, am not expected to reply right away and can delete anything I regret typing before I send it.

I cannot answer the phone when I don’t know whose calling. Many times our home phone has rung out unanswered while I stood over it, willing it to stop because I’m too scared to pick up. My mobile phone is a little easier because I have caller ID. If it’s a private number or an unknown number I won’t answer. But if it comes up with the name of the person calling I will more than likely pick up (though not always).

I will never leave a message on an answering machine. I feel silly talking to myself and usually mess up the message anyway. Either that or the machine cuts me off before I’m finished. As hypocritical as this may sound, I’d love for everyone who called me to leave a message when they rang. Then I’d know who they were and if a return phone call is warranted.

Making phone calls is just as bad. If it’s someone I know there is no issue, but if I have to make a call to a company or a place where I don’t know who is going to answer, I can’t do it.

As an example, a while back my husband asked me to find a gardener and call them to make a time for our jungle of a backyard to be mowed. I found a gardener and contact number, no problem. Then I spent the whole day getting worked up about actually picking up the phone and organizing the work to be done. This is what went through my head:

What if I have the wrong number? What if he doesn’t answer? Will I have to leave a message? What if I leave a message on a wrong number? What if I screw up the message and sound silly? What if I forget some important detail in the message and have to call again? What if he does answer and I freeze up and don’t know what to say? What if I pronounce his name wrong? What if I sound bad? What if he can’t come for a week? What if I double book something? What if he can’t do the job we need done? What if I have to call someone else? etc. etc.

You get the idea. Lots of “what if’s.” I got so worked up about making what should have been a simple phone call, my brain went into shut down mode and I started to panic. Eventually a friend made the call for me.

If I have to make an appointment to see the doctor or for some other thing, I would rather go to their office and make the appointment in person than pick up the phone. Which is only slightly less difficult because I don’t like crowds and I never know how busy a doctor’s office is going to be.

This is another issue that’s getting worse with time rather than better. I was always nervous to use the phone, but I could still do it. Now it’s becoming incredibly difficult. I am aware of how illogical this all sounds — but no amount of logic is helping when it comes to this issue. Phobia is defined as an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something. I have an extreme fear when it comes to using the telephone.

I have since learned this phobia is more common than I thought, and there are many people who have to deal with this to varying extents. For other people facing this problem, I would say there are other forms of communication and that’s OK. If email or texting is better for you and the other person is happy with that, then that’s great. Sometimes though, you have no other choice but to pick up the phone. It’s scary. I get it. But when you do finally work up the courage and make that phone call, you get a small feeling of achievement after. Maybe next time it might be a little easier.

Follow this journey on The Nut Factory.

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Image via Thinkstock

Anxiety and depression, they’re like peanut butter and jam, except slightly less accepted by the world. You break your leg or get the flu and you get these mysterious things called “sick days,” but when your anxiety and depression go head-to-head in an all-out battle royale, you’re told to suck it up, shake it off, grow up and go to work like everyone else does. My anxiety is like the little elephant on my chest. Sometimes there are good days — he’s cute and just kinda hangs out and let’s me have my normal. But then there’s the bad days. He makes it difficult for me to do my day-to-day. It makes it hard to breathe, hard to get out of bed, to make plans and keep them, to sit in meetings and to meet new people. To try new things. To leave my bubble. Depression adds 500 pounds to the elephant. It makes all of those things impossible.

I’m sitting at my computer, shaking and my eyes are welling up with tears. I’ve had too much human interaction, too many conversations with strangers about important things, about nothing, small talk and even the occasional joke. But still too much. I’m staring at my computer. A group of people walk in. The thought of seating them makes tears pour down my face. My coworker comes by. I suck it up, say it’s just allergies giving me the sniffles and the glassy eyes. I realize I’ve only been at work an hour and I have seven more to go at the absolute least.

I panic a little more. I’m embarrassed that I’m crying, but my body is freaking out and I’m just numb. I can’t move, I can’t talk, my chest is heavy. Just a run of the mill panic attack. Totally normal. I get up, I serve a customer, I clear a table, I take a call. I had already woken up glued to my bed, feeling hopeless and tired and cancelled a meeting, so my day was off to a running start. Maybe if the bad had just ended at one panic attack it would be different. But it wasn’t. I’m trying to explain why I’m not feeling well, but I can’t find the words that either don’t make you cry or don’t make you sound like a “pansy,” because anxiety and depression and mental illness “aren’t a true thing.” Mental illness. But OK, I’m just “not feeling well.”

Which for all intents and purposes is 100 percent true. I’ve barely kept any solid food in my body all day since my body rejects it once I hit a certain stress level. All of a sudden I catch myself thinking about it all. And panicking again. And feeling rather upset and helpless. And this vicious cycle of crying and panicking and terrible thoughts just keeps cycling my whole shift, just sitting in a trance, staring at my computer, wanting to crawl under my covers and cry. But I’m at work. No sick days for me.

* * *

As it turns out, my anxiety is a person. I found my anxiety in a dream within a dream just now. Well, a dream within a dream, which as I type, could truly just be another dream…
I was in my bed, in my room, with my sister — a normal scenario. Until I was asleep against my will, my sister wasn’t there, a shadowy man looming and leering near me. I was kicking and screaming and punching, trying to pull myself out of what fell like a lethargic, drug-induced haze.

Then I woke up — feeling fine, until a panic inexplicably and out of nowhere came over me, I start trying to get out of bed, to find something normal, to remind myself that I’m awake — until I find out that my hands and feet are asleep, my limbs feel like rubber, I couldn’t breathe, speak and could barely see other than blurs in a blackish haze of what seemed like my room. I tried to yell but nothing came out, I tried slapping my face to wake up out of the darkness that I was surrounded by, but my hand had no effect. I was still screaming and tangled and my bed wouldn’t let me go – like it had arms and legs holding me against my will. I was trying to yell for help, but all that would come out were small gasps of air. I felt hopeless. I started crying and gave up.

I finally awake. For real this time. Terrified and anxious and in a full out panic, I scramble for my phone, panting and crying and just praying someone is awake to validate my consciousness.

I write down everything you just read and realize my dream(s) is/are an allegory for my anxiety and depression: it’s out of your control, it takes you at your most vulnerable, traps you and holds you tight until it’s done with you and shows you no mercy. It’s no elephant. My anxiety is a tall, faceless man. He paces around me, watching my struggle to escape. He has an effect on me, he laughed and mocked me, just seeing the kind of power he had over me; he watched me fight and cry and do everything he could to keep me under his spell, at his every demand.

Would you not be terrified if that happened in real life? If you heard this was happening in real life to someone you knew or cared about, that they were being held against their will by someone – wouldn’t you want to help? Wouldn’t you want to make things better?
Well to me, this is real life. It’s my real life, my reality, my every day. There is a real man who makes most of my decisions for me. Just because you can’t see him, doesn’t mean he isn’t there.

Follow this journey on The Way I See It…

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Image via Thinkstock

Let’s talk about the color pink. Growing up, I took pride in my aversion to the color and my unwillingness to like something just because I was a girl and that’s what we did. I loved sports, so in the black and white world of a child, I chose being an “athlete” over being a girly girl. Thus began my public detestation of all things pink and my one child protest. But then I grew up. With time came the realization that I could have it both ways; I could be both a feminine and an athlete. Yet, to this day I still occasionally find myself hesitant when buying something pink, because deep down that fear of propagating a stereotype I never fit never really went away. But the cool thing is, the woman I am today can never be defined by the colors I wear or the sports I play. If anything, they’re just small insights into the complicated and beautiful human being I am learning to love more and more as each day passes.

Yesterday was the Women’s March on Washington and I wanted nothing more than to be there. I want to be in D.C. with my friends, yelling and screaming for what we believe in, and making history. But sadly what we want and what is best for us isn’t always the same thing.

Since coming back to school I’ve felt an energy and passion that I’d long since forgotten i had the capacity for. I wake up every morning itching to see what the day has in store. Just for comparison’s sake, the other day I had a stomach bug that kept me in bed all day. This is something that three months ago would have sounded like the perfect day, but was instead a day spent wishing I was anywhere else but trapped in my room going stir crazy. So while all of these changes just energize me to keep practicing the skills I learned in “Brain Rehab,” I’m fully aware that in the grand scheme of things my healing journey has only just begun. And that’s why I wasn’t in D.C. yesterday. I know this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I also know that in a crowd that big, somewhat trapped in a sea of people, my anxiety would skyrocket and I can almost guarantee a panic attack would come.

Coming to terms with my decision to stay home wasn’t easy. At first I was upset that my brain was denying me the ability to take direct action against the unsure trajectory of our country. As a two-time survivor of sexual assault, Donald Trump and his comments and views on women horrify me. As an ally, the thought that any of my friends could be subjected to even more hatred and prejudice during the next four years terrifies me. And as an American, the widespread belief that this country isn’t already great saddens me. It was for these reasons that I wanted to march today. They’re also the logic behind why I felt my decision to stay home was just another extension of my privilege and an act of complete selfishness.

Here’s the thing though: Self-compassion and knowing yourself well enough to know your limits isn’t selfish. If I had broken my leg and was on crutches, I wouldn’t feel bad about missing the march. Recognizing that I have a legitimate medical condition, rather than berating myself for circumstances that are out of my control, helped to shift my perspective. Instead on focusing what I was missing out on, it drove me to find other ways to be involved.

And so that’s how I found myself in the middle of Lancaster City at 10 a.m. yesterday morning, with lips painted bright pink, smiling wide as Ukelele Explosion sang songs of solidarity with the hundreds of other protests happening countrywide. I had the perfect view. Perched on top of a ledge, I watched as hundreds of people stood in the square wearing their pink pussy hats proudly; all there to stand not only with D.C., but also with every other American exercising their first amendment rights today.

It was in that moment I realized why this march was so important. Regardless of geography, when that many people from all walks of life rally around one common cause, something extraordinary happens. The hope and positivity that every single one of those beautiful humans radiated combined to create a practically tangible energy. It didn’t matter who we were or where we came from because during this rally we became one.

So thank you President Trump, because with your efforts to divide us, you instead gave us the motivation to come together stand truly united. You made housewives into activists, fathers into feminists, and strangers into friends. But most importantly, you changed my lifelong prejudice to the color pink. I no longer regard it as an archaic gender stereotype because after today, the color pink symbolizes strength, hope, and unity. And as hard as you may try, these are things no legislation or executive order can ever take away.

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Lead photo by Mark Dixon

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