Overcoming Worry

When You’re Afraid: Panic Attacks

When You Fear Something No One Else Seems to Fear

I vividly remember my first panic attack: it was seven years ago, in January. I was in college going through sorority recruitment, and it was my last segment before finding out if I was going to be in the sorority I wanted.

We were dressed up in our best business casual, sitting in a circle of chairs. Behind me stood another woman, hand on my shoulder, for the duration of the ceremony. One woman stood front and center, giving an emotional testimony of a tragic experience that happened several years earlier.

As I sat in my chair, eyes wandering the room taking it all in, my shoulder started to feel heavy and sore. I was afraid to move it, for fear that the woman behind me would misinterpret my fidgeting.

The soreness in my shoulder soon started to radiate down my right arm. With that, my heart started to race, unsure of why my arm was ringing with pain. Within seconds, fears that I was having a heart attack overwhelmed me. I could feel my legs sweating, as the rest of my body became misted in cold sweat. All I could think of was that I was going to die in front of all these girls, giving this poor woman up front yet another tragic experience to live through.

Fortunately, I wasn’t having a heart attack. But to my dismay, this was only the first of many panic attacks that I would experience that year, and for years thereafter.

Panic attacks are one of the scariest physiological experiences I’ve lived through. They make you feel as if you have no control over your body, over your thoughts, over anything. 

If you have experienced any of these symptoms, you are not alone. 22.7% of Americans have a panic attack in their lifetime (Kessler, R. C., Chiu, W. T., Jin, R., Ruscio, A. M., Shear. K., & Walters, E. E., 2006. The epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorders, and agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch. Gen. Psychiaty, 63, 415-424.). That means, you are likely friends with someone who has had, or will have, a panic attack just like you. Just like me.

When I had my first panic attacks, I felt like something was wrong with me. It was discouraging in so many ways to fall victim to my own body’s responses to external stimuli. It didn’t matter where I was; the panic attacks were happening all over the place: at school, at home in bed, running errands with friends. It seemed like I had forty triggers, not just one.

I’ve learned since then that nothing is wrong with you if you have panic attacks.

You are a normal person, who experiences normal things, and who has normal reactions to those things.

All of us respond to environmental factors in a variety of ways. Some of us approach things with no regard to consequence, while others of us approach every situation with caution and apprehension.

Did you know that being skeptical of one’s environment is actually a very natural thing to do?

If deer were not apprehensive about revealing themselves in an open field, they would find themselves under attack without warning.

If rabbits haphazardly returned to the same feeding grounds that were once dangerous, they would continually fall prey to larger animals.

I learned that my panic attacks were centering on one fear that I had not yet faced. Those attacks were my body’s way of signaling me that danger was approaching.

That may not always be the case. Panic attacks can happen for a variety of reasons, so I encourage you to look into why yours might be happening.

But just know, and appreciate, that your body was designed to look out for you! It is our natural instinct to guarantee our survival, and even though these sensors can sometimes get jumbled, explore why yours alert you when they do.

Rest assured, having a panic attack doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.

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