How To Deal with A Panic Attack

The phrase panic attack always baffles me. It implies that some external force is publicly assaulting you, one that everyone can see. Yet, if you’ve ever experienced one, you’ll know that this isn’t the case. It’s like a falling sensation, or tripping in the dark.

Until Stylist Live I hadn’t experienced what I would call a major panic attack for over nine months.

I remembered some aspects, from previous attacks. The pounding heart, sweating, feeling as though I’m about to shit myself… check, check, check. I can deal with all that. Yet what I’d forgotten, was the sheer and overwhelming terror that crashed over me like a Tsunami. I lost the ability to think straight, or focus on anything except the fear. It was like being stuck in a nightmare.

Waiting backstage to be ‘mic’d up’ for my talk, I was aware that my legs were moving, but I couldn’t feel a thing. It was like I was being dragged along for the ride. How could nobody see what was haunting me? Christ, it was trying to tear my to pieces.
My mum knew what was going on, but like all ports in the storm, she didn’t react. She was calm and stable, ready to listen and not bombard me with affirmations like “you can do it!” (Which really don’t help when you’re panicking).

I can remember the exact moment when I wanted to bolt. Pay attention because this part is very important. I was about to leave backstage and the fear was so intense that I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t care about letting anyone down, humiliating myself or even how I would physically get home. I just wanted to run.
This is textbook behaviour when experiencing a panic attack. The ‘fight or flight’ response essentially overrides your brain and wants you to do one of two things. Fight off the danger, or run away from it.

Despite feeling as though I was about to crash and burn in front of two hundred people, (including my family), a thought suddenly popped into my head. “Claire, it’s a trick, it’s not real. Look at your wrist.” That’s the most important thing about panic, it’s an elaborate response trigger by the brain to keep you alive. Except, I wasn’t in any danger, my brain had been fooled into believing that I was.

One year ago, I got the word ‘WAIT’ tattooed on my left wrist to remind me of this. No matter how bad the panic attack feels, if you embrace it and accept that you’re neither going to die or go crazy, then it’ll dissipate much faster. Is it easy? NO! But trust me, it works.

As I embraced the thought I suddenly turned to my mum and said, “f**K it. I don’t care anymore,” (my mum allows bad language when I’m under pressure.) What more could it do to me? I was already experiencing everything it had to throw, and you know what? I was still standing.
Clutching her hand as we walked across the venue, I saw the crowds lining up to hear me speak. “I’m human,” I thought, “and so are they. Isn’t that what binds us?”

As the room filled up and I sat in my seat, the panic began to dissipate and a new force replaced it. Strength. A strength in accepting that I was afraid, but moving forward anyway. Pride in myself at how far I’d come. When it was time to walk on the stage, the first sentence that came out of my mouth was unplanned, but felt natural.
“I’d just like to tell everyone that I’m nervous. Can I get a round of applause for that?”
As the room erupted into a mountain of applause, I felt alive once more.

The talk was the best I’ve ever given. I wanted to inspire others to embrace their vulnerability and respect mental health in the same way we do physical health.

Some top tips about panic attacks

  • Think of them as being like a dodgy smoke alarm. They want you to believe that you’re in danger, when you’re not. (The exception to the rule is an axe murderer or being chased by a dragon).
  • If you run, then you’re essentially proving to your brain that it was right to trigger an attack, which is false.
  • Accepting an attack isn’t easy. I keep it simple by mentally saying to myself “It’s ok, we’re ok. It’s just a trick, nothing bad is going to happen.” Then I try a few breathing techniques that you can view on my YouTube channel, and stretch out my muscles.
  • I also say to myself “what you’re experiencing now is the worst bit. It can only get better from here.” Like being in a queue for a roller coaster, the anticipation is worse than the reality.
  • Always be kind to yourself afterwards. After my speech I drank my weight in gin and my parents bought me a necklace to commemorate the day. However, something more low-key is just as good.

If anyone would like more advice on panic attacks then feel free to comment below. I’m happy to help.

Also, click HERE to view the behind the scenes footage of the lead up to Stylist Live.

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5 Comments

  1. Julie Lynch
    November 26, 2017 / 7:03 pm

    What a brilliant description of a panic attack, your tips are so very good, especially thinking this is the worse it can get. I hvnt had one for many years now, thankfully, but at times can feel rising panic in certain situations and manage it by distraction and breathing techniques. Well done Claire for your talk, fantastic achievement.

  2. November 26, 2017 / 10:03 pm

    I like your smoke alarm analogy! Somebody once told me that panic attacks are like car alarms. We all have them – for a very good reason! Some people’s will only go off when it’s actually supposed to i.e. when the car is broken into and some people’s are triggered by a leaf touching the bonnet of the car! Hearing somebody describe panic attacks like that to me made me feel so much better about having them!

  3. Josh Roitberg
    December 12, 2017 / 5:24 pm

    I like on the tips part where you mention that if you run from the situation, you are training your brain that it was right to trigger an attack. I think that is a really smart way to think about it. If you start doing that enough times, it it like you are training your brain to say I can leave whenever things get uncomfortable.

  4. Curtis
    December 12, 2017 / 8:00 pm

    I have major panic attacks. I’m 41 and have had them since they started when I was 24. I never really tried to get help. I’m going to a therapist now, and I just got in meds. My panic attacks happen driving. I have for the last 10 years living in a bubble because I stay in a safe zone so I don’t trigger my panic attacks. I do have a few ran ones but I don’t let myself get the real bad ones. I haven’t had a job, which makes me depressed. My family doesn’t understand the true feeling of a major panic attacks. It sucks because I want to get a job and work sooooooo bad. I hate sitting at home in a bubble. But now I want to work hard and conquer this problem. Not sure anyone will read this but God bless.

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