The Creative Portfolio of Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

Living Through a Nightmare: The Reality of Having a Panic Attack


There are many medical conditions in our society that are harder to see than others and even more that are not taken seriously because we just don’t understand them. One of those conditions is anxiety and one of the worst things afflicting anxiety sufferers can be a panic attack. But what is a panic attack? How do you handle them? Today we’re going to make efforts to understand what panic attacks are and how we can handle them better as a society, as sufferers, and also as supporters.

Among the myriad of mental health issues that many fail to truly understand in our modern society, anxiety exists rather prominently. It can be hard for us as people sometimes to find that line between a normal amount of something and when it seeps into becoming a diagnosed mental health issue. This distinction happens often with anxiety because like depression and other emotional states, anxiety is surprisingly normal to some degree. Feeling some anxiety is actually a normal function of the human brain and can even be a natural warning mechanism in some situations.

So when does anxiety become a mental health issue? As an actual person with anxiety, I can even admit that this is a difficult question to answer. Even now with my anxiety being somewhat managed it can be hard to discern when I’m experiencing normal anxiety or something that is cause for concern. In general, anxiety becomes a concern when it becomes unfounded,overly frequent,disruptive, or dangerous in some manner. There are definitely situations where you don’t need to dig as deeply about feeling anxious like a job interview,first encounter, or naturally stressful situation that would get to anyone. But when a person has a true mental health issue with anxiety is when it becomes debilitating.

For example, while a normal reaction to a job interview is to be a little anxious it rarely lingers or causes harmful or disruptive side effects. The moment the butterflies in your stomach escalate to not being able to breathe or completely losing focus of where you are or what you’re doing is the moment you may be suffering from something beyond normal anxiety. For some with anxiety, the issue can be that it never goes away. While being anxious every now and then in an appropriate situation is normal, being anxious all the time is very far from it and slowly eats away at you if it’s not handled properly. Beyond psychological damage, some anxiety sufferers can escalate to seeking to experience pain or performing other acts that cross the line into being truly harmful or damaging.

As a society we tend to downplay things like depression and anxiety because they are indeed normal to some degree, but more to the point we have a distinctive disconnect that there are differences between feeling blue and having clinical depression or being a little nervous and having an anxiety disorder. We have a tendency to trivialize how much these conditions can change a person’s life or affect their well-being. Mental health awareness is primarily an issue of knowledge, the knowledge of what people around us are truly experiencing and how we can better equip ourselves and our society to assist those people in ways that truly make a difference.

Most anxiety sufferers would agree that one of the worst things about an anxiety disorder is a panic attack. You may think you are far away from this issue and it’s some rare occasion but millions have panic attacks on a regular or sometimes even daily basis and suffer silently because we live in a society that doesn’t understand a lot of ramifications of mental health terms. Think about it for a moment. How seriously do you take it when some says “nervous breakdown” or “panic attack”? We can’t see these things happening and that can lead to us making them lighter terms in our minds. But let’s look at it another way. How seriously do we take it when someone has a a heart attack? When someone has a heart attack  we usually have a pretty common call to action and consider it a serious condition. The person is rushed into care,monitored carefully and even has prevention measures set up.

But here’s my next question. Did you know that panic attacks share a surprising number of symptoms with a heart attack? It’s surprising but true. Panic attacks are far more than feeling anxious or even feeling anxious excessively. Panic attacks affect the body in ways that a lot of common afflictions do and just in the same way we rush to aid a person having a heart attack,a panic attack should merit the same urgency. While panic attacks can vary person to person, one of the common elements expressed nearly across the board for sufferers is that it feels like a heart attack. A panic attack can constrict breathing,rapidly increase heart rate, and tighten the chest very much like a heart condition does. Basically, it can feel like you are being smothered to death which just builds on the anxiety that caused the situation.

Panic attacks are an escalation of anxiety so it bumps your anxiety up to terror in a lot of cases. Many who experience panic attacks feel very real terror,impending doom,loss of sanity,or even like they are genuinely dying. This can be a hard thing to understand since panic attacks often don’t look like much on the outside. Many sufferers learn to temper how it looks to outsiders over time and while this is a viable step in learning to cope and live with an anxiety disorder it is also a double-edged sword because it makes it harder to see they’re struggling and need help.

WebMD says the following in regards to panic attacks:

“Panic attacks are generally brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, although some of the symptoms may persist for a longer time. People who have had one panic attack are at greater risk for having subsequent panic attacks than those who have never experienced a panic attack. When the attacks occur repeatedly, and there is worry about having more episodes, a person is considered to have a condition known as panic disorder.

People with panic disorder may be extremely anxious and fearful, since they are unable to predict when the next episode will occur. Panic disorder is fairly common and affects about 6 million adults in the U.S. Women are twice as likely as men to develop the condition, and its symptoms usually begin in early adulthood.

It is not clear what causes panic disorder. In many people who have the biological vulnerability to panic attacks, they may develop in association with major life changes (such as getting married, having a child, starting a first job, etc.) and major lifestyle stressors. There is also some evidence that suggests that the tendency to develop panic disorder may run in families. People who suffer from panic disorder are also more likely than others to suffer from depression, attempt suicide, or to abuse alcohol or drugs.”

In a sense, panic attacks are a very real personal hell for those that suffer with them. They can be a confusing,painful, and disorienting experience that drastically lowers quality of life and causes long-term damage. While most are brief, some can last hours and symptoms can change over time,progress without proper attention, or vary. I can remember personally having a period where my panic attacks came with 1-3 hours of profuse and uncontrollable sobbing. I missed an average ten days to as much as close to half a semester in high school  just from the disruptive nature of the attacks because nothing could be done but sending me home with a relative. That’s not bellyaching. It’s a whole day or chunks of a month lost because of panic attacks. On top of that I’ve carried long-term psychological damage from repeatedly being thrown into extreme panic mode and feeling like death is looming over. You never truly drop that feeling of instability and doubt that panic attacks instill and it can break you down over time. You develop a sense of no longer trusting your feelings or instincts. You lose a feeling of security, not just out in the world, but around the ones you love.

Despite that, when I would explain panic attacks to others they often dismissed them or didn’t seem to take them seriously. And I didn’t just lose time from these attacks. I also suffered from brief blackouts,missing chunks of memory,severe nausea and what felt like a severe heart attack along with the sobbing. Anxiety symptoms always bring friends so no anxiety sufferer just gets one or two things afflicting them but a cluster of symptoms beating them down at once.

If it sounds scary to you, it’s because it should. Whether you are a person having one or even if you’ve never had one, panic attacks are a truly terrifying experience that I can just barely sum up in writing even as a frequent sufferer. They are waking nightmares that millions of people often carry the weight of alone because of fear and stigma. As a society, we need to make an effort to understand the struggles truly plaguing anxiety sufferers  and begin to create situations where people no longer have to bottle up the storm raging in their bodies and minds, and feel comfortable asking for help that they will truly and seriously receive.

As an anxiety sufferer it can be hard to live happily sometimes. It can almost put you on a constant defensive mode. Panic attacks are unpredictable enemies to combat and while most of us learn techniques and treatments over time, it rarely softens the blow of living with anxiety completely or repairs all the damage done from past attacks. While therapy and medications can be partial allies, living with anxiety and living well is far more than that. This section is for all those people who suffer from anxiety and feel like you may not be doing everything you can to live your best life.

Understand Your Anxiety

People outside of you aren’t the only ones who need to gain understanding of what truly comes with an anxiety disorder.In order to get better and live better, you also need to understand your condition. Knowing the facts about medical conditions you have can be a great tool and a source of strength. It means we’re taking the wheel and not letting the condition decide where the next stop on our life journey is. Make an effort to truly research and understand your anxiety. Journal so you can learn how anxiety affects you. Becoming an educated patient can be a huge step toward truly getting better and living despite your illness as opposed to living according to your illness.

Be Willing to Self-disclose and Seek Help

Pride can be as dangerous as it is a boost when it’s poorly placed. Anxiety sufferers often suffer quietly because they either don’t want to ask for help,are too scared to ask for help, or are shamed out of asking for help based on a poor experience. Self-disclosure is a hard task to broach because it means opening a wound to others in a lot of ways. It can feel like we’re mentally stripping in a way and it can fail or put us at risk for so many of the negative reactions society can throw back onto mental health sufferers. It can feel like an action with no foreseeable returns tied to it. We want to be capable and handle the situation ourselves because we live in a society that belittles the weak and lifts the strong.

I’ve always personally been a type of person to not ask for help, even when I truly needed it. Between the trust issues that I’ve developed over the years and trying to grasp onto my sense of pride until my fingers turned white, I’ve hit plenty of points where I did more harm than good not asking for a hand and giving people a chance to care. Combating this sort of adopted paranoia and mistrust can be hard to do when dealing with a mental health issue but one of the things that has helped me start turning it around in recent years is learning to discern between pride and sabotage.

Learning that pride should lift you and not eat away at you is key to dealing with mental health and the best way to deal with an anxiety disorder is to seek help. That’s why as an anxiety sufferer you owe it to yourself to respect yourself and not hold onto misplaced pride and developed assumptions. People can only care about you when you allow them to and being strong isn’t about being able to handle everything yourself. True strength is realizing you can’t do it all and being brave enough to get the help you need to live well.

It will hurt and it may still be an uphill battle, but if you’re dealing with your anxiety alone then realize you don’t need to. Take that risk of sharing the truth of your condition with others so people realize how rampant an issue anxiety is. Step out on a limb and try to trust others with the understanding that risk is well worth possibly feeling better and achieving your goals in life. Seek the help you need so you can be as close to 100% as possible and stop beating yourself up slowly. Ending the stigma and creating awareness isn’t a weight completely on society in general or even the medical community. It means more mental health sufferers need to step up and speak up. Change needs to happen on both sides if we ever want to be able to meet each other in the middle.

Be Open to Alternative Solutions

Caring for yourself when it comes to mental health is more than medications and therapy. True self-care is going beyond the basics and finding new ways to approach your issues. There are plenty of ways to deal with anxiety that don’t require a prescription and sometimes not even a dime spent. If you’re getting the basic array of treatments but still feel like you’re losing the battle, then be open to seeking out alternative options like natural supplements,lifestyle changes,new types of therapies, and comparing notes with others dealing with the same battle in their lives so you can get second opinions and new perspective. Do as much as you can to fight back because even if your anxiety is still there, you can make it a much less scary foe by arming yourself in every way possible.

Build a Support Network

Dealing with anxiety isn’t something you can do alone. The most successful people living with mental health issues recognize they can find strength in others and make efforts to build a support network around themselves. A solid support network is a mix of professionals and personal contacts so while you might have a doctor or therapist on hand, that’s not enough. Create a network of friends,loved ones, and even a trusted co-worker or two so  have a solid support network on all sides to turn to in tough times. Once you stop carrying the weight all by yourself, anxiety becomes a little bit more manageable and you can build a source to dip into for strength,hope,and personal success.

Create an Emergency Strategy

Dealing with anxiety successfully means being prepared. Mental health emergencies are just like any other type of emergency in that they do less damage if you have a plan to implement when dealing with them. Panic attacks can come at you any time and lack consistency for most but it doesn’t mean you have to be caught off guard. Have a person you can turn to at all your usual places in case you have a severe panic attack. Having that trusted person means you have at least one person you can communicate effectively to when the panic attack happens or you feel it closing in on you. Additionally, establish a safe place in those places. A safe place can be a literal place like a quiet room you can unwind in but you can also create a safe place with familiar objects or stress-relief aids.

If your panic attacks can reach extremely severe levels, make an effort to locate an emergency room you can get to in a pinch at all your familiar places like work,school,or home. Knowing you have something in place for the worse case scenario can be a huge relief when the time comes that you really need it. Make sure that you have emergency transportation if your anxiety affects your ability to drive or have some reserves to use something like a bus or Uber if you have to. Most importantly, learn exercises that help you reduce the damages of panic attacks over time. Find activities that help you bring your stress down so you can try to prevent a full panic attack.

Some people find breathing helpful but you can also try playing a relaxing game,drawing,getting some fresh air, or walking to get your circulation going. Find something that helps you help yourself and do it without worrying about what the people around you think. There’s never any shame in taking care of yourself. Your anxiety is always going to come back for a new fight but that fight doesn’t have to be one-sided.Taking care of yourself isn’t just something in the moment. It’s also about being prepared for what comes next and growing stronger so you can be less of a victim.

Put Yourself First and Have a Desire to be Happy

It can be a natural instinct and logical coping mechanism to learn to curb how you experience panic attacks in public. The important thing is to not do this out of shame,misplaced pride, or fear. When we let anxiety chip away at our confidence and happiness, we give it more control over our lives and become more likely to internalize things and beat ourselves down over time. Learning to control you anxiety around others should be something you do as a mechanism to take your life back, not deplete from it. A huge component to living successfully with a mental health issue is simply wanting to be better. It might sound idealistic or simple, but until you decide you want to heal, you probably won’t. If you want to be a victim then you’ll remain a victim but if you want to be a champion you’ll find a way despite what weighs you down.

Stop shaming yourself,internalizing, and discounting your feelings. No matter what others may think, mental health sufferers need to be their biggest advocate in their fights. This means assuring yourself your feelings,thoughts, and opinions have value. This means recognizing your problems have the same weight as everyone else’s. This means being selfish when you need to and doing what you need to do to do right by you without worrying about pleasing others or entertaining their thoughts on the matter.

If you don’t make an effort to care about you then no other person truly will.Recognize that the biggest step in overcoming anxiety is that you need to love and respect yourself enough to truly get better. Do things that make you happy. Take time to work on yourself. Never put all your eggs in another person’s basket. Being a little selfish when you need to will help you grow strong and grow into a person that isn’t a slave to your anxiety.Being different and having an obstacle doesn’t mean you’ve lost the right to have goals and be happy in your life, so take that step to start taking yourself and your health seriously.

Just as vital as it is for anxiety sufferers to deal with things on their own terms, many of them couldn’t do it without a support network. It can be tough when you’re seeing someone you know dealing with anxiety and difficult to know what you can do for them. This section is for those of you who may not have had a panic attack but need guidance with helping the anxiety sufferer in your life more effectively.

Don’t Underestimate Them

Many anxiety sufferers have fought their battles with anxiety for longer than you can reasonably guess. It’s not a condition that just pops up overnight. It builds over years and lingers so you’re more likely to be seeing a repeat occurrence and not an initial episode, especially when dealing with an adult. Before you do or say anything, make sure you acknowledge that the person is not to be pitied but rather respected for their struggles. Let them try to help themselves and if they’re in a state to communicate with you then let them make the call on what happens next and what part you have in it. The most insulting thing you can do is pity them and treat them like they’re weak, because getting up and tackling the day with chronic and unpredictable illness takes true strength. Even if a person needs help, always give them credit for what they bring to the table in that situation instead of taking over or showing you think less of them.

Have the Right Tone

For better or worse, tone and attitude can go a long way in an encounter. When you want to help a person, be mindful of your tone. Be open,understanding, and honest because when the person is already being smothered with their own insecurities the last thing they need is extra baggage or an extra layer of doubt. What the person needs most is support and not control so leave your ego at the door and make yourself truly there for the person. You need to be realistic but also positive if you want to actually aid the person and be viable support. It can be a hard thing to do and even seem like a minor thing but sometimes how you do things is just as important as doing them.

Respect the Person and their Personal Space

Sometimes anxiety can change a person a little so it becomes very important to properly acknowledge them in that moment. Never grab or touch a person having an anxiety attack without permission, unless they’re hurting themselves somehow. It may be a natural instinct to touch their shoulder,hug them, or even try to rub their back but it will probably make things worse to do so. The person is feeling emotionally,mentally, and physically smothered so the last thing you want to do is make that worse by invading their personal space. Approach with caution and concern but not fear and pity.

Start by seeing if you can get them to acknowledge you and try to gauge how much they can communicate with you at that moment. If they are responding to you and can communicate, ask them what if anything you can do for them. Don’t make any assumptions or decisions based on what you think because you’re trying to help and that means it’s about the other person and they need to have the reins if at all possible. Panic attacks are significant signs of a lack of control the person feels so one of the better things you can do is be there to reassure and empower them,not take over and invade their space.

Above all,show them you care about them and respect them as a person. Make sure you communicate you want to help and take their situation seriously. Many anxiety sufferers feel that they can’t seek help because the people around them don’t take them seriously so this is a crucial thing to take into account. If you show you care and are worthy of their trust then they will be more open to reaching out to you at that moment and possibly in the future as part of their support network. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know best or make the cardinal error of trying to relate. While it seems like a good thing to say “I understand.” or “I know what you’re going through.” these phrases actually have the opposite effect on a mental health sufferer most of the time. It comes off as you trivializing or belittling their situation. It sounds nice but it translates as condescending. No person expects you to 100% understand their situation and they’ll appreciate you not using generic responses and instead seeing them as a unique person with a real problem.

We never want to assume we know what’s best for a person or know the whole situation or even everything we think we know about that person. All people deserve respect and personal space. Needing help doesn’t negate that or suddenly make them less of a person and more of a burden. When we take the time to humble ourselves a little and see value in other people, we add value to not just their lives but our own.

Remember it’s not About You

When we are truly aiming to help a person we need to make it about them and not us. When a person is dealing with anxiety they have already realistically worked through a lot of distrust for others. They will see right through a help attempt that you make more about you then them and most likely reject your assistance. As a person on the outside, it’s imperative to understand that person’s point of view above all else in the situation. Understand the complicated feelings they’re coping with and that mental health issues create rocky chains of events that stick with a person throughout their life. If you want to help them then don’t patronize them.

If you’re only stepping up to make yourself feel better then the best thing you can do for them is just step back and not make the situation worse. Any time we help someone to help ourselves to any degree, we can only manage to do more harm than good.  Before you involve yourself with someone dealing with a panic attack,make sure you have the true intention of helping them and not giving yourself a little ego boost for doing your good deed for the day. People aren’t tools for you to use. They’re living beings with thoughts,feelings,and problems that matter just as much as yours.

Don’t Invest Halfway

Much like going in with the wrong intentions, it’s possible to only go in halfway when we reach out to others. With panic attacks, some caution can be healthy, but too much of it can mean it’s drifting from being caution into being fear. As an actual person who’s seen this in people while suffering an attack, I’d like to let you know that’s okay. Mental health issues are scary and while they’re probably scarier for the person having the attack, there’s a palpable risk and fear tied to supporting someone dealing with a mental health issue as well.

It can be truly scary to see someone you know or love going through a situation you don’t fully comprehend. It can be even harder to even ground yourself enough to get started helping them. Investing in a person isn’t a perfect process and the most valuable thing you can do is be honest. One of the best things people have been able to do for me in a panic attack is be honest. It pulls the person out of their mind and is the best way to let them know you’re in their corner. The best thing I learned while adapting to my anxiety has been that it’s scary and sometimes people don’t know what to do. But what helps me the most is when people are honest about that. Many people in  a mental health crisis aren’t expecting what you think they are. They want you to be there and be real. Tell me you’re scared and that you don’t know what to do. That’s okay. It means you’re there even though you’re scared. It means you aren’t backing down or cutting corners. It means you’re doing your best and your 100% is completely unique to you.

When a panic attack or a tough situation happens, your best is good enough. I think that’s something a lot of people trying to support a loved one with a mental health issue need to hear sometimes. For all the focus put on treating the person, it’s just as important we acknowledge as a society that supporting a sick person is difficult and takes just as much strength. When I say you need to invest fully in the other person,don’t take it to mean you need to push yourself or be anything other than the person you are. It speaks volumes more when we just make that move to be present and honest about what we can do for the person.

Be Aware of When it’s out of Your Hands

Panic attacks can affect some more severely than others and when that happens the best thing we can do for a person is understand we can’t do everything for that person. Know when the situation is out of your hands and the person needs a medical professional or different person to reach a resolution. Every situation calls for something different and sometimes helping in a mental health crisis is a team effort. Keep in mind that you aren’t there to be a hero but rather to assist a person in need. That means doing what will be best for them and not what fits your needs at the time.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but more an acknowledgement of our own limits as people and a sign of maturity and strength. If you are dealing with a person having a panic attack that is causing them to hurt themselves or lose control to a dangerous level, be wise and get them the help they need, even if it’s not something you can provide. Pride is never an aid in a crisis and what matters at that moment is the person in trouble. Knowing your own limits is a huge step in truly being able to help others and grow as a person.


Panic attacks are a scary reality for many people in our modern society but they are also able to be understood and managed. The first step toward treating mental health epidemics like panic attacks will be to make an effort as a society to treat every mental health emergency like a true emergency, whether we can see it or not. Whether we are stepping up and acting in our own best interest or reaching out to help another, we need to make genuine strides in gaining  new perspective on mental health and accepting that mental health is something that affects all of us.

Learn more about Panic attacks at WebMD

Thanks for reading this issue of Thoughts of an Aspie!

Do you agree or disagree with me? What techniques do you use to cope with anxiety? Have you ever had a panic attack?  Please feel free to let me know by leaving a comment or using the contact form on my site here to reach out to me. Also if you like my work  and would like to see more of it or support it I’d love it if you’d check out my Patreon page or follow me on Facebook or Twitter via @themeinav!  Big thanks to Pixabay and pngimg for some of the images used for today’s article and to WebMD for the extra information.


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