Having a panic attack (especially as a mom) is debilitating in every sense of the world. From the outside, it may appear as though the person having one is being dramatic about something that's "not a big deal," but when you're the one going through it there's nothing "dramatic" about it. It's a very big deal. Still there things moms who have panic attacks won't tell you because we're afraid you won't understand, or worse, you'll judge us for having no control over our actions when restrained by the panic attack's barrier.
I've been experiencing panic attacks since a young child. These attacks can come out of nowhere, and are described by the Mayo Clinic as "a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause." I've had them at holiday parties in a room full of people I knew, at a restaurant near a stranger, and even in my living room with no one around me at all. I never know when something will trigger these intense feelings, how I'll react, or how long the episode will last. Panic disorders are complicated that way. I'm prisoner to my panic and honestly, it's the worst. Not only is it extremely difficult to explain to those around me when it happens, but even I don't always understand the deeply-rooted fears that spring up out of nowhere.
Being a mom who endures these attacks means having to explain them to my children, too. Because I've been through the gamut, I recognize the signs in others. My daughter also deals with panic attacks which, as a parent, is far worse to watch than to deal with yourself. It's something I only noticed for the first time on a vacation a couple years ago, when a family member ushered her into the middle of a dancing crowd at an outside mall. Normally, my extroverted girl would be excited about a situation involving music, dancing, and other smiling kids. Instead, something happened. I noticed the signs of a panic attack immediately as she had a sudden wash of fear on her face. Her breathing quickened and her eyes darted all around. She refused to join all those care-free kids and, instead, clung to my side until she calmed.
t's one thing to experience panic on my own, but seeing it happen in front of me with my daughter was an out-of-body nightmare. I empathize so, so much and if you've ever been through it, you'll know how terrifying that must be for a (then) 8-year-old child. On that note, here are some things moms who have anxiety and panic attacks won't tell you, but I will, because while we're scared you'll judge or condemn us, we also hope maybe you'll be a little more compassionate the next time someone you know has one of these awful attacks.
We Don't Always Know What Triggers Them
To be completely honest, I can spot some of my triggers (stress, crowds, loud noises, being forced to step outside my comfort zone), but not all of them. There have been times when a panic attack has sprung from absolutely nowhere. If we always knew what sparked one, we might be better able to handle them when they happen. But, we don't.
We Can't Stop Them Once They Start
My partner, if present, often tries to intervene when I'm in a panic. He'll attempt to "cut it off" to end it sooner. This fails for so many reasons, mostly because the inside of my brain only recognizes imminent danger as it's going through an attack. As a result, any attempt to defuse the situation will be seen as the same. It's an irrational series of events that only worsen when interrupted. I've learned to let the panic attack run its course and then, and only then, can my partner make his care for comfort.
We're Embarrassed If It Happens In Public
I hate when I suffer through a panic attack in front of people. It's humiliating. Since I can't control when, or where, please know that I'm just as confused and upset about what's happening as you are — especially if my kids are with me.
We Hope you Won't Judge Us
One of the worst parts of having panic attacks is that overwhelming fear of judgement from others. Not only am I a mother struggling through a disorder that attacks anytime it pleases, I'm also battling with my concern over what you think of me. It's so small in the gran scheme, but it matters. When I break down in the middle of dinner I'm sharing with people I may never see again, I still worry what everyone is thinking of me.
If you ever see someone in the middle of a panic attack, please be compassionate. Don't stare, laugh, mock, or anything that will make things worse inside our heads.
We Aren't Being Dramatic
I admit, from the outside (as I witnessed when my daughter had an attack), it looks like a dramatic overreaction. It's not. I guarantee what's happening on the inside is a complete, uncontrollable meltdown not within our power to stop.
Please don't downplay what we're going through. Please don't say whatever triggered our panic attack isn't "that big of a deal."
Telling Us To "Calm Down" Won't Help
Have you ever been in hysterics only to hear "calm down" or "it's not that bad?" I have, and it only increases the intensity and duration of the panic attack. Plus, it makes me angry at whomever said it. Unless you're prepared for the consequences of these words, please don't say them to anyone in the midst of a panic attack. Honestly, you might just make things worse.
We Need Support
It doesn't matter where I am when an attack comes on, if you see the wheels in motion, please support me in any way possible. If I need to step out for air, let me. If I need you to distract my kids, please do. If I just need you to stand there until the attack is finished, please just stand there.
If you've never had the displeasure of having a panic attack, let it be known how taxing the whole process is. Not only does it confiscate your thoughts and hold them ransom, it denies your ability to do literally anything without the permission of your anxiety. It's as if you have to ask your panic for the change to just exist.
When I describe what my panic attacks feel like to my kids (because they've witnessed them in action), I tell them it feels like I don't know how to swim and someone's just thrown me into open water. I can't breathe, think, or find my way to safety. In other words, my brain believes it's in fight-or-flight mode. When all this passes, I'm left drained and exhausted mentally, physically, and most of all, emotionally.
Even With Treatment, They'll Still Happen
I'm sure from, the outside looking in, it's easy to wonder why I wouldn't just go to therapy, take medication, or learn "how to control my emotions." However, I'm doing all those things. I've learned Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which aims to re-train the brain in order to "change thinking and behavioral patterns, thus changing the way we feel." Unfortunately, and regardless of how helpful therapy is, nothing can take everything completely away. Panic attacks are part of my chemical makeup. It'll always be an uphill battle but, in the end, it's my cross to bear.
If you ever come across another mom in the middle of a panic attack, remember all of the above. Even if you don't understand the anxiety, you can still be a decent human being by acknowledging the sufferer's pain. It might not be that big of a step to take to you, but to them, it's everything.