I've been blighted by a plethora of panic disorders for more than half my life. It started at 14, when going to assembly became an exercise of willpower; the room bustling with people triggered my agoraphobia. Cue panic. At 16, I fell down a rabbit's hole of debilitating thoughts: 'What if I fail my A levels?' 'What if I have tonsillitis during my exams and can't go?' 'What if I'm sick during chapel?' etc.
The worst thing about all this was undoubtedly the logical and well-founded thought that followed on the heels of every episode of panic: 'I am unfit for modern day life'. However abhorrent a panic attack is (and, for the uninitiated, it's pretty awful), nothing is quite as damning as the feeling that it will hamper your progress in life.
And so I embarked on a course common to sufferers of panic: avoidance and the reliance on 'safety behaviours', with the curtailing of normal activities starting almost immediately after my first attack. That year, all my friends signed up to an outdoor camping course. The idea of my joining them was untenable - panic would surely ensue when even the thought of going let the panic monkey out of the enclosure. Then there was dating, which pushed me outside my comfort zone. To make it through the evening, I'd have to manage my food and drink intake with military precision; often we panickers find the usual practises of eating and drinking a minefield.
Next, it started to infringe on my career choices. My aptitude tests at school all came back with one resounding result: journalism. While I agreed that wordsmithery was for me, I also knew that a busy newsroom coupled with a rush hour commute would probably render me debilitated through panic and, ultimately, I'd have to quit/be fired. Instead, I embarked on a higgledy piggledy route dictated by what I felt I was capable of dealing with, before finally working through enough of my fears with a psychiatrist so that I'd be able to work for patches of time in magazines and newspapers, thereby making the necessary contacts to branch out as a freelancer.
This all may sound familiar to you - panic seems to be engulfing we modernites in its gaping jaws and there are now plenty of voices joining the quest to raise awareness and funding for sufferers of mental illness. This is good. What is bad, though, is that there seems to still be a lot of baloney spouted by those who clearly have little understanding. Here are some of the things I hear again and again when I mention the p word:
- "Just think about something else." This one just kills me. Ever been mugged? I have been. In that moment of peril, your mind is focussed on nothing else. This is precisely what happens when you panic - the brain can make no distinction between real and imagined danger and it is equally as difficult to pay attention to, say, the TV when you're mid-panic as it is with a gun pressed to your head.
- "It's just a weakness." Only it isn't, is it? Panic is, like many illnesses, a distortion of what's meant to be happening - the amygdala has just been wired wrong and needs to be retrained. Like cellular illnesses, it can be cured in most cases with the application of medicine/rest/good advice.
- "What would you do if you had a real illness?" Like, say, the propensity for your brain to randomly disable your ability to function? This 'advice' is just offensive - if we're ever to address mental illness properly and with the reverence it deserves, we need to stop considering it a 'fake' or lesser condition. It is as real in the mind of the sufferer as any physical complaint.
- "When you have children/a full time job/something real to worry about, you won't have time to panic." See above. Would you give this advice to someone with a slipped disc? "Oh don't worry Nora, your back will cease to be agonising when you have longer shifts and more responsibility at work." Tosh.
- "Life's too short." Ah, this old chestnut. Nothing makes a panicker feel better than a reminder of mortality, and how they're squandering their life on unavoidable protracted periods of panic.
What not to do out the way, here's what I would suggest if you should find yourself in the company of someone panicking: quietly reassure and, when possible, gently remind them that acute attacks last for a maximum of around 10 minutes. Whatever you do, never resort to uttering the above platitudes - they're both unhelpful and damaging to the already-stressed mind of the sufferer.