The Curious Incident of the 6pm Panic

Have you ever had a panic attack? Maybe you have seen someone having one?

For those who haven’t had a panic attack- be glad. They are weird things.

What are they like?

Panic attacks can be ‘minor’ giving you a vague tight chest feeling which can last for anything between a few minutes to a hour. They can be short and intense: you can hyperventilate, feel nauseous, feel light headed, feel like you just can’t cope- that you need to escape. With the stabbing pain in your chest and the inability to properly breathe, you can genuinely think something is horribly horribly wrong.

 

They can happen when you are feeling stressed and panicky, when a situation is just getting too much. And, sometimes they can sneak up on you seemingly out of the blue. Even once they are gone they leave their effects behind leaving you feeling completely drained, and generally ‘out of sorts’ for a while afterwards.

Did you know that you can have a panic attack in the evening because of something that happened in the morning?  Yeah,  that’s a thing.

What is a panic attack, and what causes them?

A panic attack is a exaggeration of your bodies normal response to stress and fear- it’s the fight or flight response in action, which is why you can feel:

  • Faint
  • Nauseous
  • Shaky
  • Fluttery chest
  • Lacking in enough air
  • Like you need to get out of here RIGHT NOW.

As well as these physical symptoms, you can also have a deluge of panicky thoughts ranging from feeling like you are losing control, to feeling that something awful is happening.

Different things can trigger panic attacks- this can be from a situation or scenario directly triggering you, but can also come on seemingly randomly.

In the case of an apparently random 6pm panic- this is probably due to a build up of stress and anxiety through the day. Something that happened earlier caused a subtle shift in your body- for example your breathing pattern. Due to your heightened general anxiety levels, this shift will be sensed by your brain and eventually your brain will decide its under attack, triggering the panic attack.

The number of panic attacks you may get varies from person to person, and also by your general wellbeing. For example, I find that panic attacks come more when I have general heightened anxiety and then do something which would normally put me on edge anyway.

How can you help yourself if you are having a panic attack, or can feel one brewing?

This is what I do- do what makes you feel better.

I like to go outside, get some fresh air. I have to get away from what I am doing, change my environment, take myself out of the situation. I like to sit and wait through it, trying to calm my thoughts. I work through things I have learnt- sorting through my thoughts, what triggered this? Why? what do I think is going to happen? Why?

In other words I challenge myself.

I try very hard to not let a panic attack cause me to avoid a place- I will return to the scene of the crime! It is common for people who get panic attacks (rarely or often) to begin to avoid the place they had the panic attack- but this avoidance can make it worse in the long run.

What can you do to help someone having a panic attack?

This is probably different for everyone, but I like it if someone just sits with me. They don’t need to say anything, they just sit there with me. Afterwards, a nice cup of water helps.

What should you most definitely not say before/ during/ after!

You have nothing to be panicking about.

Just calm down.

Just breathe.

Pull yourself together.

These things do NOT help!

Don’t you think if it did we would be having a panic attack?!

Actually don’t ever say these things to those who are stressed/anxious/depressed…. They don’t help. They don’t make you suddenly better. It would be lovely if it did- but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.

Dealing with a panic attack in the lab.

This is hard. I have had two panic attacks in the lab- one mid experiment. The mid experiment one, I did not handle well (at the time I was not in a good place mentally). I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t deal. I walked out the lab abandoning my experiment and had to get myself together. At the time I just had to get out of there- I hadn’t learnt how to try and get through a panic, how to cope with the feelings.  In my head abandoning my work mid-experiment was the logical thing to do, “whatever, it can be redone”, but this isn’t always the case. My lab partner was left to pick up the pieces. Lets just say, this wasn’t the correct response by me.

Now I can control the anxiety enough. Keep it at bay long enough, keep it from going into a full blown attack. I breathe (not deeply- that can make it worse as you focus too much on breathing) just more normally, I try to empty my mind, focus on what I am doing.

PhD comics

Surviving a panic in the lab:

  • Let a colleague know- most people are nice, and if they see you distressed will help you out. I have opened up to my work colleagues about everything- they all know what is going on with me. We are all pretty good in the lab in terms of looking after each others work temporarily when we get called away. If I was at a point in my experiment where I could just leave it, I would. If not I would try to get to a point where I could. And if I needed out now, I would ask someone to look after what I was doing for a few minutes.  I am lucky in this regard- most of my experiments won’t go wrong if a step takes a few extra minutes- but I understand that this is not always feasible.

How to try and prevent having a panic in the lab:

  • If you know you are already going to be in a stressful situation, don’t put too much added pressure on yourself. For me, panic attacks are triggered when I feel out of depth. So, I pace my lab work more. If I am going to be doing a brand new protocol, I will use fewer samples or less important ones first-time. Breaking it up won’t delay my experiment that much, I will still get the data. Its better for me to do smaller steps and get it right, than try to do too much at once, panic, and ruin it completely!
  • Research and planning! Sounds obvious-but if there is a section of a protocol I am really not sure of, I make sure I read it carefully, and make extra notes I can turn to.
  • Keep experiments in perspective. Although it may feel like its the end of the world if a experiment goes completely wrong…. it isn’t really. Even when it goes wrong you learn something. Sure, its annoying as hell, but not the end of the world. And not worth having a panic attack over. Putting the experiments ‘worth’ in perspective stops me putting too much pressure on myself for the experiment to go completely 100% right. 
  • Fitting breaks in between experiments- simple yet effective. Allow your brain to chill for a few minutes before launching it straight into another experiment.

It’s hard- its taken a lot of reprogramming of my brain. I am a year down the line! I don’t have many panics anymore, especially during lab work, although they do sometimes raise their ugly head. But, as I have got my anxiety more under control, my panic attacks have also become better. Which is great- I love science, and I love lab work, and it wasn’t great for something I loved doing to be stressing me out so much. Now, I feel I can get back to simply doing what I enjoy most.

Progress

I now look back at things that happened in my life- the day I fainted at Versailles waiting in the queue, the day I nearly didn’t manage to go to my undergrad graduation ceremony, the day I nearly fainted before a Taylor Swift concert and spent the afternoon in bed. These were most definitely events that were caused by a panic attack- I just didn’t know that it was at the time. I just thought it was a general illness, dehydration… Knowing what I know now though…..

Through my anxiety I have learnt a lot about myself- I have been fearful of doing things in the past- I know that for me going to a festival is really out of my comfort zone. Last year I couldn’t have done it, this year I am not sure I could either. I would worry that my anxiety would get the best of me. That I would spend my time being ill. That I would have a panic attack. But I am still, one day going to do it. It will be a challenge. I will want people there with me who understand. Who will help and support.

What I have to remember is that: Ok, at these big events I had a panic, much badness surrounded it- but I also know that I didn’t let it stop me. I still attended my graduation. I still saw Versailles. I still danced to Taylor Swift with my friend (Shout out to Graeme for being awesome, and not complaining about me being ill and making him miss out watching all of Ellie Goulding).  SO I KNOW I CAN DO IT. It may take time until I can, BUT I WILL.

For those of you who know someone going through this at the moment, or if you are going through it yourself: You are not alone.

It can be hard- but let people into your life- let your Lab partners know, tell your supervisor what is going on. Tell your best friends. It will amaze you how much support you will have- and this- this is everything.

As always I will add a list of advice websites below:

General info about mental wellbeing: https://www.mind.org.uk/

N+N wellbeing service: https://www.wellbeingnands.co.uk/

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/panic-attacks-and-panic-disorders.htm#understanding

Free CBT based worksheets: https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/freedownloads2.htm

 

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