The Best Way Someone’s Helped Me Through a Panic Attack
For months now, I’ve been having panic attacks in loud, crowded places. I find these places to be overwhelming. I try to stay calm, but I can feel the panic slowly rising. As I start to panic, I have a choice: do I leave before the panic attack hits or do I try to stay and fight it off? It’s a constant battle that keeps replaying.
Lately, I’ve started going to an arts and crafts studio for people with mental illness. I love painting. I find it so therapeutic to sit in the studio and paint. The studio has become my safe place where I can be myself and enjoy creating art with other artists who understand me.
But today was different for me. I was sitting there painting, and a few other artists around me were talking very loudly across the room to each other. I felt trapped in the middle of the noise. To most people, it would just be loud, friendly conversation. But to someone with sensory problems like me, it was overwhelming. I felt my panic building. I was trying to breathe deeply and focus on my painting, but I felt the anxiety slowly rising. I was back to the usual battle: do I put my things away and leave before the panic attack hits or do I try to fight through it? What should I do?
As I was sitting there, aware of my rising anxiety, trying to decide what to do, something new happened.
A staff member from the studio came up to me. I think she had been in another room, but she overheard how loud the people were talking and remembered I have difficulty with loud noises. She came up to me and bent over my table, her eyes met mine and she asked me quietly, “Are you doing OK?”
I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. I shook my head no, and quietly told her that I was feeling overwhelmed by the noise in the room.
She nodded. She then said, “How about we set you up in the front room? I can help move your supplies up there.”
I answered, “Yes,” still flooded with feelings of relief and thankfulness.
She and another staff member quickly gathered up my things and got me set up in the other room. I sat there, breathing deeply, calming myself. She asked me again if I was doing OK, and I said I was getting there.
In the other room, the second staff member joined in the loud conversation, talking about hair salons and other things. At one point I heard her say to the artists, gently, “It’s nothing that you did wrong. She has difficulty with people talking loudly due to her anxiety.”
I first thought I was going to have to leave the studio due to my panic, but I ended up staying for two more hours. Both staff members checked in on me a few times to make sure I was doing OK, and encouraged me with the projects I was working on.
I finished a painting today and worked on painting two wooden puzzles. It was a productive day for me, but I will remember today for how those women helped me while my panic was rising.
I have been having panic attacks for years. I’ve had panic attacks in many different places: at work, school, clients’ houses, in restaurants, parks, stores, a hospital, at church. Most of the time people don’t notice I am having a panic attack, or that I am about to have a panic attack. When the full attack hits, I step into a bathroom or an empty room, or my car or somewhere outside until I recover. I’ve gotten good at hiding my panic. It’s useful to be able to hide the attacks because then I am able to function well at work and in other situations. I know I look anxious when I am fighting one off, but generally people don’t discern it is panic.
I’m not used to people noticing when I’m starting to panic. People hardly ever seem to notice. People rarely reach out to me. I struggle silently, alone, while continually pushing myself to perform well and act normal.
Today was something I had never experienced before. It was beautiful and amazing. I felt noticed and cared for. I felt safe, even with my panic. I was amazed by the staff members’ sensitivity to my needs. And I felt validated by how the staff member spoke about me to the other artists.
I hope that others can follow this example of how to support someone during panic. I struggle with panic often, and generally people don’t notice. Today, two people noticed, and their compassionate, understanding and sensitive response made all the difference for me.
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Lead image by Anna Lente