Derealisation is the sensation that the world around you is no longer real.
Panic attacks occur when a situation triggers the brain to the ‘fight/flight’ response. This response occurs when information stored as ‘dangerous’ is dredged back up.
The little copse of trees which marked the bend before the old dirt road wasn’t dangerous, nor was the road; despite the memories of flying round loosely packed bends in the old family station wagon, playing corners in the backseat and attempting to pull the ‘are we there yet?’ joke (we always got bored of it before our parents).
The cows and llamas grazing in the paddocks on either side of the road watched aimlessly as I walked past, my feet were bare and sore but not bloody – it takes quite a bit to tear your feet up, especially if they’re leather-hardened from travelling around in bare feet. The dirt wasn’t enough, rocks might have been, but I was glad for the scratch of dirt not too painful. I wouldn’t have kept walking if it was too painful, I would have stopped too close to home and the universe would have folded in on top of me.
At least, that’s what it felt like.
I crashed at some point, into the ground. I remember passing the rusty cattle grid, getting past it by climbing over one side and then the hollow in my chest began to rise, constricting my throat, making it hard to breathe. I was dizzy, dizzy from the walk, dizzy from the fight, dizzy from the panic twisting my internal organs into a Gordian knot ready to rival the intricate macramé of my thought-cycle, which spun and spun, til the strings grew so tight I had to put my head between my knees to feel normal again.
I never made it too far past the cattle grid, the adrenaline wore off. So I sat in the grass, picking daisies and unlucky clovers from the grassy knoll beside the road.
If this were a proper short story, 'the girl picked flowers after a severe panic episode' would be a rather anticlimactic ending, wouldn't it?
The truth is, this may be quite a long article, and it is something I've been thinking about writing for a long time.
As far as I know, my battle with depression and anxiety might have begun a lot earlier than I remember. I certainly remember having quite extreme panic attacks from as young as twelve or thirteen. Certain instances of these attacks have left me weak, light-headed, terrified to leave my house, terrified to talk to anyone. Actually, to be perfectly honest for the first six months or so of this year I was too scared to even say 'hello' to the people walking into my house, at age 20, after my supposed 'awkward' phase. Even after leaving behind high-school and family drama from the past, I still felt ashamed and awful of being the person that I was.
When it comes to mental illness, triggers, symptoms and treatments vary heavily from person to person, but over the last few years of trying to heal myself I have managed to develop a few tools for helping myself deal with panic attacks.
I wrote a small piece of advice to myself down in my journal roughly six months ago, after a conversation with my friend Bonnie. Somehow, we managed to work out (in our opinion) how the whole universe works (lol), that everything is cyclical and that human thought and behavioural patterns (and not to mention the institutions built on the volatile promise that is human behaviour) follow this natural design.
This conversation led me to the advice I wrote for myself photographed below (don't worry, I'll translate and expand on it in Times New Roman because I know no-one will be able to read that scrawl) and a way of dealing with my panic attacks and anxiety disorder when I am caught out in a triggering situation. I still 'panic' through the entire process, but I find that if I concentrate I will calm down and be able to feel better about myself much more quickly than I would have without my little piece of self-advice.
Basically, I designed this list of 'things to remember' during a panic attack.
1. Accept - the idea into your mind
2. Identify - what it is and whether you agree or not
3. Control - the idea, by understanding it. Unpack it and explore it. Ask yourself, 'why do I feel like this thought/idea/whatever is real/making me sad/mad/anxious?' Gather some evidence through your thought-pattern. Did they really give me a mean look? Should I actually feel nervous going to this class?
4. Dismiss - if you disagree.
5. Renew - I believe that renewal of ideas is the most important step in this process. It's the key factor and goes back to what I wrote earlier about cycles and patterns in nature. So, edit, change, destroy and rebuild until the idea becomes one you understand and agree with. I have huge troubles with anxiety when I am placed in large groups, so I ask myself: 'Is there anything to be scared of sitting here with my friends?' No, there's not. If I feel the panic still (and I will, this list is no cure) I will begin to search through my head, looking for the stored information that has triggered the attack, find it, realise it is no longer applicable and cast it away.
Easier said than done, I know.
6. Activate - the new idea, create places for it to manifest and be passed on in a narrative that can be understood. An example of this could be, replacing the negative thought 'I bet everyone here hates me/thinks I'm fat/ugly/stupid/whatever' with a calm, logical counterpoint such as, 'everyone here has so far been nothing but nice, why would they be judging me? Even if they are, does it matter?'*
Words by Ellen Wardle.
*I am not a trained health professional and therefore am in no fit capacity to give medical advice. This article simply illustrates a way I have found helpful in dealing with stressful thoughts and situations. if you, or someone you know is suffering from a mental health disorder please advise them to contact their local mental health services.