Although I am fortunate enough to consider myself in fairly good mental health, I want to tell a story from my life where I experienced a panic attack, and a mental health professional helped me deal with it in a big way.
I have experienced panic attacks a few times in my life, centred around university exams, failing relationships or money troubles. But there’s one particular event that has always stuck in my mind when the topic of anxiety, stress or mental health come up, as it has today, thanks to #BellLetsTalk.
I was 25 years old, working full-time from home for a company that publishes and runs professional development courses. I was tasked with the design, copywriting, editing and logistics of a national direct mail campaign, and it was on a tight deadline to get course information in the hands of potential students before the enrollment for courses closed.
The price of one of the courses was written wrong, and passed through two rounds of edits undetected. Then, when reviewing the final printed document, my boss noticed the error and was steaming mad. Steaming. Mad.
She was justified in her anger, as she had given me the power to make decisions about the campaign, all the way from concept to design to execution. And she expected that I would check the details over before committing to print. Because printing these things was expensive.
So, I was invited to her home office to talk about what went wrong. Her office was a small room stacked to the ceiling with stacks of books and papers. This was a familiar and comfortable working environment for her, but the exact opposite for me. It was claustrophobic.
I don’t recall the words exchanged in our discussion, because quickly emotions heightened, and I was sucked into a panic tractor beam. Visually, my perspective began to change. The room got bigger, and everything started seeming further away. My boss’ voice got quieter, and then more and more muffled. Eventually it sounded like the teacher from Charlie Brown. Wah wah, wah-wah-wah-wah.
My heart raced. My head pounded. I could feel the fight or flight reaction surging through me. FLIGHT FLIGHT FLIGHT. I battled internally until the talk was over, and left at the peak of panic.
As I walked home, my body shook and my fingers tingled. And then a voice came from the back of my mind, ever louder. It was shouting.
YOU’RE NO GOOD AT THIS, YOU FAILED YOURSELF AND YOUR BOSS. YOU’RE A FRAUD AND NOW YOU’VE BEEN FOUND OUT. WHY WOULD YOU BOTHER? YOU SUCK.
Over and over it shouted, for the better part of an hour, until I was able to distract myself long enough with music and other work to calm down and return to some kind of homeostasis.
When it was over, I did not see a counselor about this incident. I didn’t even know it was a panic attack until years later, when I recounted it to a counselor I had decided to see about a different problem. They used official-sounding labels.
These words might sound a little terrifying, but none of these things scared me when I talked about them.
They became knowns, in a world of previous unknowns. I could quantify and put some logic behind what happened to me that day. And it helped me in a big way with handling later incidents of high stress and anxiety.
If you or someone close to you have trouble with anxiety, panic attacks or any troubling emotions, there’s help. A lot of employers offer EAP programs, to connect employees with free counselling.
If it’s a crisis, there are a number of different hotlines you can call. Reach out, talk to someone, and I guarantee you’ll feel better. I know I did.
Postscript: check out another story on the same topic from earlier today by my friend Alyson Shane.