panic button
CC image, “Panic Button”, courtesy of star5112 / Flickr

“One little victory. The greatest act can be one little victory” – Rush

It can be difficult for someone who has not experienced panic to understand what it is like. Panic and anxiety are often conflated. But panic is not anxiety, at least not in the way that anxiety is commonly understood.

Panic takes over your body. Panic cripples you. Panic hurts almost unbearably. Panic is disorienting. It is very difficult while you are panicking to rationally understand what is happening.

When you start to panic you feel short of breath. For me, after the shortness of breath comes a tingling and burning sensation on the back of my neck. This spreads to my shoulders and then to my arms. While this happens I also start to feel weak. I lose strength and coordination in my hands. They start to feel numb and they tremble.

My chest begins to hurt. First it is a dull ache. It builds steadily to a sharp, burning pain that gets worse with each shallow breath. My face goes numb. I have a hard time concentrating on anything. I am only able to stare straight ahead, unable to move without great effort, and unable to engage my surroundings in any meaningful way.

When I try to speak, if I can say anything at all, it just comes out unintelligibly, with a significant stutter, and with no real strength behind it. You can’t articulate anything when you feel like you have no control over your face and mouth and you cannot breathe.

The panic makes me want to scream. It makes me want to run. It makes me want to punch, kick, and throw things. I feel primal, like a cornered animal.

But the panic also keeps my body from doing any of these things. I start to feel like a prisoner in my own body. I have no control. I feel claustrophobic. I feel trapped. I feel desperate to escape but I have no way out. You can’t leave your own body, after all.

Afterwards I feel stupid. I feel weak. I feel like I’m incapable of handling the most basic social and professional interactions. I feel inadequate, subhuman.

I left a meeting early this week. I was barely able to drive myself home and I was worthless when I got home. I was unable to do anything but lie down and breathe. The worst was that I had only been out in public that day for just over an hour. I felt like I should have been able to handle it. I felt ontologically broken for not being able to do so.

It may have felt like a defeat but it was also a kind of victory, and an impressive one at that. I did go to the meeting, after all. Despite knowing that a recent disruption in my treatment plan meant that panic was likely I still ventured forth. I faced my fear and overcame it, at least for an hour.

My ability to go out, knowing that I could experience crippling pain and all of the other symptoms of panic at any moment, and still choosing to attempt to live a “normal” life in spite of that was, if I am honest, a hell of a brave thing to do.

It was one little victory.