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SergeantQueen's avatar

How do you explain anxiety to people who claim to know what it is, but tell you it's all in your head when you have a panic attack?

Asked by SergeantQueen (11751points) February 26th, 2018

Everyone I know gets really mad at me when I have a panic attack and tells me I’m overthinking it, or it’s all in my head, or to just stop overreacting.

I keep thinking of it like this “If you went up to someone with asthma, who was having an asthma attack, you wouldn’t say “It’s all in your lungs. Just cut it out and breathe normally”” like we know asthma is serious and yes it’s different on the level that people can die from asthma attacks, but it’s the same idea.
Are there other ways to explain what it’s like to have anxiety and panic attacks without getting super personal?

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11 Answers

thisismyusername's avatar

There’s very little that can be done to explain what a panic attack is to someone who has not experienced one. I am a former panic attack sufferer, and the only way I would attempt to tell people what it was like was to say that it was like pure fear, concentrated, and injected into my veins in a way that made me feel that I would die. Yet reading those words really doesn’t encapsulate what a panic attack really feels like.

I don’t think it’s possible, and you probably shouldn’t make too much of an attempt to go out of your way to explain it to friends and family. But it’s important to express to friends and family that telling you to “stop overreacting” or “it’s all in [your] head” is far from helpful. What you likely need – especially in times when you are in a panic attack or are close to one due to anticipatory anxiety – is the comfort to know that you are safe. Tell your close friends and family (if they really want to help) that you need them to really be there for you if you experience a panic attack. Don’t direct it or tell you what to do. Just be there and not judge you.

Of course, you are likely getting treatment for this panic disorder. If not, you need to be. Now. It’s something that you can overcome and put it behind you. I lived with it for years, yet I haven’t had a panic attack in more than 16 years.

Feel free to PM me if you need any advice on specifics regarding treatment approaches, etc.

SergeantQueen's avatar

I don’t go out of my way to explain it. I find I end up feeling all anxious when I do. I prefer to keep it as private as possible.

I agree with you. My parents were supportive in the beginning, bringing me some tea and just talking with me about other things which helped. But after about 5 years (ish) of therapy (most was about depression anyways not even anxiety) and I’m still not better, they call me an attention seeker.

SergeantQueen's avatar

I tried to text one of my friends once when it was happening but I found that made it worse. Too much to focus on reading and typing coherent sentences.

thisismyusername's avatar

@SergeantQueen: “But after about 5 years (ish) of therapy (most was about depression anyways not even anxiety) and I’m still not better, they call me an attention seeker.”

Ouch. I’m sorry your parents have reacted this way. You should definitely bring this up in therapy.

One thing to keep in mind is that panic disorder and depression are often linked, and treatment usually involves specific types of therapy combined with medication. For a long time, unfortunately, some doctors treated panic disorders with addictive medication (benzodiazepines) that really just treated the symptoms. In my experience, anti-depressents (SSRIs) are far more effective in treatment – along with therapy.

Try to remember that it’s not your responsibility to make people understand what you are going through. Your responsibility is to work on techniques you learn in therapy (breathing excercises, etc) and remind yourself that this is temporary and that you will be fine.

SergeantQueen's avatar

Thank you for your answers. I am no longer in therapy. I have checked out books though on anxiety and me and my therapist did cover a little bit on anxiety, like he talked about the Dragon. and that’s mentioned in the book as well.

gorillapaws's avatar

I’m sorry you’re going through this. I explain it like this: Our bodies have a switch in them that puts us in a fight or flight mode. This is a useful switch, especially when we were cavemen and stumbled across a dangerous predator. It causes our pulse to increase, our muscles to tense, the blood vessels in our skin to constrict, it shuts down our digestive system and a ton of other stuff. It’s literally not limited to the head. Almost every system in the body is involved. Of course everyone responds to medications differently. Best wishes.

In people with anxiety disorders, the switch that activates this mechanism trips when it’s not supposed to. It’s like having a bad thermostat that turns on the heat even in the summer. Many people have success with medication to manage anxiety disorders.

Soubresaut's avatar

I’m sorry you’re going through this, too.

I can’t speak to panic attacks directly, but I have a friend who experienced panic attacks and couldn’t see a therapist during high school. She was able to meet with the school counselor instead, and for her that was a help. It depends, of course, on what services your school offers, (and how well you get along with the counselor(s) they may have), and whether it’s something you’re interested in. But you might be able to access some professional support that way, if you want. (And it should be something that’s kept confidential from your parents.)

And though this isn’t much of a help right now—when you get to college, your college will almost certainly have a mental health services center you can access for free as a student and book appointments, if you want. Edit to add: when I mentioned this idea, I was imagining it being available to you in the fall… Still a while to wait, but in the foreseeable future. I realized that I don’t actually know when you’re graduating—you don’t have to say—just it occurred to me this point might be less helpful depending on your timeline. I’ll leave it in case it’s helpful, apologies if it’s much.

MrGrimm888's avatar

I usually try to be by myself, if I’m having an attack. I feel humiliated by the symptoms (not saying that’s right.) And those who haven’t dealt with an attack, can’t possibly understand.

Three weeks ago, I was trying to go to work with a strong attack raging. My hands were shaking so bad, I couldn’t put the key in my car door. I had to call in with a made up story. I can’t imagine how my boss would react, if he knew the truth. Or my subordinates. I am a leader, and looked to to make difficult decisions that could have life or death consequences. Part of my battle has been hiding my symptoms, and at least appearing to be in control.

I’m embarrassed to admit these things, but I want to make sure you know that you aren’t alone SQ. I wish I could give you advice. But I can only offer support. I’m so sorry that your parents aren’t more supportive.
It’s been largely something I’ve faced by myself too.

Good luck.

Peace n love.

Mimishu1995's avatar

I’m sorry all of you have to go through what you suffer from. I don’t have any advice either. Just want to say that it’s hard for people to understand our problem, and even more unfortunately, some people just don’t want to listen to us. When I had mild depression back at high school from the extended bullying I received, no one was able to understand that I was depressed. People thought I was begging for attention like any unpopular kid that age would. A “friend” (who later proved herself to be the biggest bitch I’d met) said she knew about depression through TV and the internet when I revealed to her I had depression, and promised me she would help. Then she started to treat me as if I was a chronic victim. When I tried to remind her of our conversation, she said “it’s just mild depression. You’ll get over it if you stop making a fuss out of it.”

It’s so unfair that people freak out when the body is sick, but laugh it off when the mind is. The people who say they understand your condition, please take their words with a pinch of salt until they prove themselves. Sometimes people don’t know what they are talking about.

You are not alone. All I think we can do is sticking together.

LostInParadise's avatar

Someone who has not personally experienced depression or anxiety has no idea what it is like. I know this because, when I am not feeling depressed or anxious, I can’t explain it to myself. When I am fully engaged, I think about the task at hand. I don’t think, “I am feeling okay”. When depression or anxiety hit, they take control and make it difficult to think about anything else.

gondwanalon's avatar

I live with low level continuous anxiety. I view it as part of who I am. It’s what I refer to as my nervous personality. My true friends accept me as I am. I refuse to take drugs to change who I am to make my behavior more pleasing to others (including doctors).

You might suggest to those who are not happy with your behavior, that you don’t try to manipulate their thinking, personality or behavior so kindly leave my mode of operation alone.

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