I can’t breathe. Should I go home? I need to sit. Where should I go? I need to calm down. I look stupid. This is embarrassing. I need to get it together. I swear if somebody tells me “you just need to breathe” I’m going to—
If you have experienced this thought process on campus, come join the panic attack party. University is an overwhelming place, and I would be lying if I said I’ve never had a panic attack on campus. Hyperventilating with mascara running down my face on the ground floor of Murray Library — what a welcoming way to enter the 2019 winter term.
One of the most difficult things I experience whilst in the midst of a panic attack is the inability to process things as they are in the moment. My mind is running a million miles a minute, my heart is racing, and my breathing is shallow and rapid as it feels like there are no solutions to the issues at hand.
You may have experienced thoughts like “I shouldn’t feel like this” or “If I continue to panic, people are going to judge me” or — my favourite — “They can see that I’m panicking, so they must think I’m weak/crazy/useless.” These thought processes are incredibly self-destructive and will often make a person feel more anxious and panicked.
There are many skills you can learn from professionals or read about online, but the reality is that you likely won’t remember them while you’re having a panic attack. The most generic and commonly suggested method to calm down is “just try to breathe.”
Breathing is incredibly important to control, but someone who is hyperventilating probably isn’t just going to have the sudden realization of “Oh, wow, thanks! I never thought about breathing! I’ll just start breathing again” when offered this advice during a panic attack.
Using grounding techniques to bring yourself back to reality can help you feel more in control of the situation. Something commonly known as the 54321 technique has been circulating widely to help ground you during anxiety or panic attacks.
This technique involves naming 5 things you can see, 4 things you can physically feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 good thing about yourself. There are a few different varieties of grounding techniques, and no single technique is better than another. It’s all based on your personal preference.
But another thing I have found helpful is that — believe it or not — a lot of professors are fairly understanding of panic and willing to help however they can. I have walked into one of my former professor’s office mid-panic attack, asked if I could sit there to calm down and stayed for three hours. I will forever be grateful for that support.
My mind is running a million miles a minute, my heart is racing, and my breathing is shallow and rapid as it feels like there are no solutions to the issues at hand.
It is so important to find somewhere you feel safe if you are experiencing panic attacks on campus. The Student Wellness Centre is the best place to go for support, and they also offer drop-in counselling services on weekday afternoons.
Drop-In Peer Support is available at Peer Health in Marquis 104, located across from the bookstore, throughout the week from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays, 12 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays, and 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Fridays.
Feeling a certain level of anxiety is normal as it can help prepare us for dangerous situations. The point where anxiety becomes problematic is when our bodies perceive danger when there isn’t an immediate threat — which is what happens when you experience a panic attack. We cannot simply eliminate feelings of anxiety, nor do we want to — they are normal! The goal is to learn to manage them.
Graphic: Shawna Langer