There is being “stressed out,” which is like most of us about 80% of our waking lives. And then there is the full-blown-someone-make-it-stop-no-seriously-make-it-stop panic attack. I know you didn’t see this coming but, according to a large-scale epidemiological survey, the National Comorbity Survey (NCS): Panic attacks are more common in women than men. Clearly there was no control for the emotional laboring variable. But the spread is significant. NCS results show that women are a whopping 2.5 times more likely to experience panic attacks than men. Super. Duper.
Still despite panic disorder affecting about 6 million adults in the US, not to mention the many more of us who experience panic attacks infrequently enough to miss the label, we don’t really talk about them. So where is the line between "I’m so stressed out that I’m going to cry" versus "my mind has put my body on full lockdown"?
According to the Mayo Clinic, a panic attack is “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” (Um, sidebar: if you saw my to-do list, the complete chaos of my house, plus the gut-blow of a particular business setback that triggered my last panic attack, you might rethink the whole no-apparent-cause portion of your definition. But I’m not trying to start a beef with Mayo Clinic. Moving on.) They key is not whether your anxiety is justified; the difference is that your anxiety hits high enough that your body puts you in time out. It’s your body’s way of saying: “Hey, Mind, you’ve had enough of that anxiety juice. You’re gonna sit right here until you’re safe to operate your life again.” Panic attacks are like the designated driver you didn’t invite to the party. They aim to keep you safe.
To know me is to know that I’m an anxious person. Early in my career, my mentor defined me as a “hand-wringer.” It’s not all bad. For me, anxiety and action are usually linked. If I’m anxious, I typically calm down by taking action. If I’m inactive, I get anxious. So I take action….You see the loop. Anxiety is kind of like the get-shit-done emotion. But everything has its limits. My affection for action-producing anxiety ends where panic attacks begin. Not only are they semi-terrifying, they are suuuuper inconvenient. Like they seem to only strike right when you are in the middle of one-thousand things. And frankly, they are embarrassing. There is not a lot of pride in the moments where you feel like you are having a heart attack, are rapid-fire pulling on your hair, and - between the gasps of hyperventilated breaths - panting to your husband: “Move the paper!! I can’t see the piles-of-paper!!” (Stupid piles of paper trigger)
The thing is, panic attacks themselves aren’t life threatening, but they rock your world hard. In the you think you are dying or have gone crazy, not the Prince circa 1984, kind of way. So you want to manage that shit. But recognize that anxiety disorders generally aren’t as simple as a, to quote The Jerk, “see a doctor and get rid of it” kind of problem. If high anxiety or panic attacks are a thing for you, consider this:
- Know that you aren’t alone--particularly if you are a woman.
- Recognize that your body is putting you in timeout for a reason. Like you wish your kid would do: respond when your body politely instructs you to slow down. Don’t wait to address your stress level until your body gets out the angry eyes and sets you in the corner.
- Be proactive with stress management. That means: exercise regularly. Eat foods that nourish you. Sleep (like, more than 4 hours a night). Incorporate meditation into your daily routine. Have screen-free zones or times, and periodically turn off the alerts on your devices. Say no to life-sucks disguised as opportunities. Limit your exposure to toxic people. And, at the risk of stating the obvious, pack each of your days as much as possible with experiences and people that you actually enjoy.
- Last but not least, get help. Like, talk to your doctor about your options. We get it: You’re tough. No doubt. But, between you and me, none of us come without dents in our armor. And if you’ve ever found yourself rocking on the floor like an infant, convinced that it’s a heart attack or the onset of the apocalypse, the struggle. is. real. So ask for help.
Slow down. Breathe deep and stick with us. We've got your back.