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Steffanie Preissner: This is what a panic attack feels like


Stefanie Preissner

Stefanie Preissner

Stefanie Preissner

Is it just me, or has anyone else ever experienced the terror of a panic attack? I recently stood behind the Oscar Wilde statue on the corner of Merrion Square Park, heaving to catch my breath as reality crumbled around me.

It was an ok day. Not good, not bad. I hadn't noticed anything turbulent in my life in the days leading up to it. On inspection, I hadn't slept well for a few consecutive nights. I was juggling deadlines and trying to establish a new way of life in a world that doesn't have my nana in it. These things weren't new stresses, though. Anyway, it wasn't the worst day I've ever had. Until it was.

It starts with a kind of dissociation. It's as if you're standing behind a window watching the world go by, but you're actually in the middle of the street, living it. I couldn't connect; I couldn't stay alert and present in my body on the street. Then my vision distorted. It was subtle; it wasn't fuzzy or blurry like I was looking through water. I felt like I was in the street view of Google Maps. Every step I took would sweep me, all pixelated, up the road to another point. If I moved my head, my body would stay still but the world around me would move like a character in a terrible video game.

I was terrified.

I tend to go to the worst-case scenario, always. If I hear a noise in the house at night, my mind jumps to a serial killer coming for me, rather than thinking a picture has fallen off the wall.

If someone texts asking to speak to me, I go straight to I'm fired, or being sued, or being abandoned. If the contactless feature doesn't work on my debit card, I jump to 'my accounts have been defrauded and emptied by the son of a deposed African king'.

When I'm caught off-guard, keeping in touch with reality is hard. I have my guard up most of the time. I walk around in a heightened state of awareness, my eyes peeled for what's coming left and right, and an ear out for potential danger. When I'm tired, sick, distracted or stressed, I'm defenseless because I don't have the energy to be like a VAR referee to my every move.

On a spectrum

We talk about mental health in big, vague terms. You do not need a chronic diagnosis of depression, bipolar, or to experience suicidal thoughts to have poor mental health. We all have it sometimes.

Mental health is a spectrum. It's like physical health - problems can range from minor to terminal, from a pulled hamstring to an incurable virus.

On this day, I had the mental-health version of a chesty cough, sore throat and runny nose. When the panic attack came, it was that one cough you do where you realise, 'I'm beyond Benylin here' and you go to the doctor.

Because of luck, fate, or my nana's guardianship, I was on my way to meet a colleague who happens to know her way around the obscure and unsettling landscapes of a panic attack. That day, I outsourced my salvation to her. I'm not even exaggerating; I let the woman be my central nervous system for a few minutes. She told me to breathe in; I did. On her instruction, I held my breath and exhaled for however many seconds she said.

I felt safe allowing her calm, measured approach to the world wash over me. In a panic attack, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode unnecessarily, so you can't trust the impulses you get. If a lion were chasing you, running for your life would make sense. There were no lions in Merrion Square. Oscar was the wildest thing about the park, but for whatever reason, my mind misfired and I panicked.

A doctor treated me in the same way they would if I was physically unwell. Rest, medicine and a gentle warning not to google my symptoms.

The most upsetting part of the attack was how fractured from reality I felt. I usually feel connected to the world in a real, bone-deep way. It's scary to suddenly feel your grip loosen and fear building inside like an overfull bag of popcorn in a microwave.

It passes like a chesty cough. Or it progresses into something more. Either way, there are people with skills to help, and asking for help is sensible and brave and advisable.

Now that I'm feeling better, my job is to take back responsibility for staying well - even if it would be easier to let people breathe for me - as Oscar says: 'Our ambition should be to rule ourselves'.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine