A PSA: How I Deal With a Panic Attack

I hadn’t had one in ages, but suddenly there I was on an airplane, trapped in a small space thousands of feet in the air, when it occurred to me that I should probably completely freak out over the situation. It was immediately one of the most overwhelming panic attacks I’d ever experienced — I couldn’t breathe, I saw flashes of light, my heart raced and I felt like I was about to blow into a million pieces if I didn’t escape right now — but also one of the most brief, because I remembered two simple things.

1.) Call it anything but a panic attack.

2.) Focus on the worst thing that could happen, as opposed to the worst way that thing would make you feel.

On calling it a panic attack. Two words I can’t stand under the circumstances — panic is an alarming choice on its own, but attack? Bears attack, rabid bitey rodents attack, hearts attack. There’s nothing to be done and you are about to get fucked up, so just emulate a rock and try not to cry, dude. But this, this is just you, your mind, making silly connections that have little to do with reality and statistics. Settle down.

I prefer to call it “wigging out”, because I think that expression is perfectly goofy, even insulting to the feelings I’m experiencing. Don’t glorify your bullshit! Condescend to it!

Granted, this is all personal, and you may find some other expression more hilarious/effective. Get into a tizzy? Feel perturbed? Throw yourself into a swivet? Spellcheck doesn’t even know what the hell you mean!

So, while I used to think “shit, I’m about to have a panic attack” and want to curl into a fetal position (This is a medical condition! Pity me, why aren’t I on medication? Attack attack attack!), now I think “well Christ, I’m about to wig out” . . . and then I snort a little. Shit, I’m going to feel hella perturbed if I don’t

Reassess the root of this. You can tell yourself it’s all in your head, silly connections and all that, but if you stop there you’re bound to get frustrated. Yes this is my own doing! God! Why do I have to suck?

I had a book once called DON’T PANIC. (Literally, in caps like that.) I say “once” because I got rid of that book, due to the fact that it ruined my life for a few months. Its whole theory was that you should take your anxiety to its limit, let yourself feel as awful as possible, and this would help you realize that your anxiety wasn’t that bad. This book was clearly written by a doctor who’d had no patients. What’s the worst you could feel?

You’re probably already aware that the answer is “pretty freaking awful.” And you could go there if you wanted, “take it deeper,” and hyperventilate on the plane if you think that would help. You could grip the arm rests and pray for a time warp that magically delivers you three hours into the future, for the entire flight, if you wanted. You could faint or throw up while dudebro slumbers next to you. You could be miserable and sweating the entire time, eyes bulging. But, really, why would anyone choose that?

On the other hand — and using one verb only — what’s the worst thing that could basically happen?

Because I find the answer is nearly always “well, I would die.”

Maybe I’m a sicko for being comforted by this. But compared to the intensity of the adrenaline running through your system, death really seems kind of stupid. Is that all? Just my death? (Okay, and maybe fifty others — but let’s be honest, the cause of a panic attack is rarely due to a specific concern for someone else.) Because it feels like the world is literally going to explode and it’s my job to stop it.

Oh god oh god oh god, what if the plane just began dipping to the ground, and we were plummeting to the earth and I would clamber over passengers and the feeling of falling and the feeling of force and the feeling of desperate hopelessness it would all be so terrifying and —

Oh, wait. What’s the end result? What’s the point of this fight or flight response, rushing through your body at incredible rates?

Just . . . death. Which is going to happen some day, anyway. Quit wigging out, you’re fine.

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  1. Strangely enough, I’d thought to myself recently that you hadn’t updated this blog in a few weeks, which seemed unusual to me. Mildly concerned, I went over to your Facebook profile, and there had been no activity in slightly less time.

    Then I realized you were probably just on vacation. Sure enough, a few hours later, there were dozens of photos from a trip taken not quite too far from your home state.

    Fine, indeed.

  2. Great post! I also hate flying– so I self-medicate with mini-bottles of booze. They’re under 3oz, so you can stick them in the plastic bag with your shampoo. Then order a coke on the plane and you’re golden! You might still worry about dying, but you’ll do it with a cocky devil-may-care swagger, because you’ll be kind of drunk.

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