Content note: this piece contains negative self-talk as well as discussion of panic attacks and mental health issues.
I woke up last night to a full blown panic attack.
I had fallen asleep with some sad feelings. I was in a bit of a funk but didn’t know exactly why. I had some theories. I decided to sleep on it. Sometimes that helps.
The temperature outside dropped very low. The wind roared against my window. Cool air slipped silently into my room.
I woke up shaking uncontrollably but didn’t realize I was cold.
Hundreds of thoughts were racing through my brain, competing for attention. I couldn’t parse them. I couldn’t pull them apart for examination. They were a mess, and they didn’t make any sense, but they all felt real.
“He doesn’t care about you”.
“You’re a fuck up”.
“You’re alone. You’ll always be alone”.
“No one cares about you”.
I couldn’t keep up with it all, the cyclone in my brain.
Along with these thoughts, I felt a powerful desire to do something destructive: to send a slew of accusatory texts, blow something up, and push someone away to affirm the idea that I will always be alone.
Then I realized I was cold. I was shaking because I was cold, not because I was useless or selfish or pathetic or alone, but because my room had gotten fucking cold. I got out of bed and switched on my space heater, then dove back under the covers and curled into a ball for warmth.
Slowly, the room and my body began to warm up. My heart rate slowed. My shaking became less violent and then stopped altogether. There only remained a lingering feeling of dread in my stomach.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” I reassured myself. “I just need to warm up”.
Eventually, I fell back asleep. I woke up several hours later in my normal state and thought, “What the hell was that?”
I’ve been having panic attacks since my early twenties. I was in university when they first hit. Though I’ve lived with an anxiety disorder my entire life, the panic attacks bowled me over when they first showed up. It took me a while to develop coping mechanisms for them. They consisted of surges of intense anxiety and fear like I’d never experienced before, irrational and hopeless thoughts, shortness of breath/feeling an inability to breathe, a tightness in my chest, a racing heartbeat, and generally feeling like I was dying/going to die. They almost always happened at night. I struggled with insomnia in school as well and the panic attacks reacted cyclically with that. I’d often struggle to fall asleep for hours, eventually clock out for twenty minutes or so, and then wake up in a panic and be wide awake for hours afterwards. That or I would have an attack because I couldn’t sleep and the deprivation was interfering with my ability to go to classes, study, write papers, and do exams. I was chronically exhausted, stressed, and anxious. I was living on my own for the first time in the middle of a big city where I knew almost no one. My roommates weren’t exactly the friendliest bunch and my school didn’t have a great track record as a warm, welcoming place. I was putting an immense amount of pressure on myself to perform as well as I had in high school, even though the expectations were much higher. I was struggling financially, living off of OSAP loans and paying too much for rent every month. These circumstances were ripe for my mental health to take a nosedive and the panic attacks subsequently developed.
One of the most important non-academic things I learned during my years in university was how to cope with panic, when the rational portion of your brain shuts down and the fear-based, animal brain takes over. I developed strong abilities to self-soothe, ride out the fear, and practice self-care following an attack.
I’m in a much better place now than I was back then, so last night caught me by surprise. I haven’t had an attack like that for almost a year. I wasn’t prepared for one, and for a little while there, it seemed like all my coping skills had gone out the window. It’s always challenging when the panic sneaks up on me when I’m half-awake because for a while, nothing really makes sense and I can’t take the wheel because I don’t even know where the wheel is.
But I did it. Those skills I developed a few years ago came back. I remembered. I rode it out, self-soothed, and even managed to fall back to sleep. I also didn’t do any of the destructive things my panicked brain was compelling me to do.
So, there’s another bad night under my belt and one more small victory too.