I like calling them panic attacks.

We tend to sanitize the English language. Too much, in my humble opinion.

I understand the motivation. A great many terms have become pejorative.

Language that used to be acceptable but is blatantly derogatory, exclusionary, and discriminatory is no longer considered acceptable by the rank and file. There are hangers on, of course, but their use of antiquated and ugly terminology makes them easily identifiable.

We change. We adapt. We create new words and terminologies that don’t have baggage attached. Mostly, I acquiesce to the changes. I’m fine with modifying my language at the request of a group to something they feel suits them better and isn’t hurtful or demeaning. Mostly, the changes are a good thing.

Sometimes, however, the changing of language will backfire.

For instance, I miss “rape”.

Not the crime, the name. You can no longer commit rape in Canada. You commit “sexual assault” instead. The term “rape” was considered too inflammatory. It was hard on the perpetrators. The argument was, they weren’t able to get a fair trial because of the emotional context of the word. It was too ugly, too violent.

Good. It should be. The mere word should engender disgust and contempt. “Sexual assault” does not have nearly the gravitas. The sanitized term waters down the crime, makes it palatable; it makes it seem cleaner and less violent, and I really dislike that.

Sometimes, too much is lost in the watering-down.

I feel the same way about the term, “anxiety attacks”.

I do not have “anxiety attacks”. I have panic attacks. I’m not anxious. I’m panicked; I’m in full-on flight or fight mode. To say that I’m anxious is to severely underplay the reality of the situation. When someone says “You’re having an anxiety attack”, I feel diminished. It feels like it should be a manageable, easy, tidy thing.

It’s not.

Because I’m panicking.

I went to a wedding this past weekend. It was a busy day after a busy week and I was already feeling overwhelmed. Add the volume of people surrounding me and the emotional difficulties of the day and I was ripe for a breakdown.

It happened at the reception.

I could feel it coming. I could feel the pressure in my chest building. My muscles started to get tight. My thoughts got faster and louder and less kind. The urge to run and escape kept growing until it seemed like it would take over my whole self.

I tried to fight it off. I sat down on a picnic bench and practiced slow and deep breathing. I tried to reconnect to the world around me; I tried to stay anchored and present. I looked at things, and felt things, and listened to things, and tried to smell and taste things.

It didn’t work and unfortunately, the panic exploded.

It’s odd how you can look normal on the outside while internally freaking out. I sat there on the bench for about five minutes before anyone noticed I’d gone quiet. Gone dark. Not talking, not interacting. Just sitting there, arms wrapped around my knees, body pulled into a tight ball as I tried very hard not to freak out or pass out.

I knew I wasn’t having a heart attack but it feels like it. The pounding in my chest echoed through my whole body. I was shaking and breathing shallowly even as I tried to tell myself to slow down and breathe deeply.  A kind of vertigo took over. My ears were ringing and I couldn’t focus. My eyes don’t track properly when I’m panicking. The world looks wrong, out of colour and too bright and oddly skewed. I can’t do much of anything besides sit and wait for it to pass. I didn’t have meds either. I can’t take benzodiazepines anymore; I tend to abuse them, to numb myself out.

Someone noticed after a bit. “Are you okay?” they asked. Talking is difficult when I’m panicking. My sentences come out stilted and simple. I tried to look at her to communicate that way but my eyes wouldn’t track. “Panic attack”, I managed to get out.

She was great. She didn’t try to talk. She didn’t freak out or panic herself. She sat beside me and put her hand on mine. That was all but it helped. Grounded me. Slowly brought me back to the world. After a few more minutes, my breathing slowed. I started being able to focus again. Started to be of the world again.

After something like that, all I want to do is lie down and sleep. I want to let the remnants drift away while I’m unconsciously unaware. Unfortunately, there was four hours of wedding left and I’m too close a friend to leave early. It would’ve been hideously inappropriate and unkind. So, I stuck it out. I felt like I’d lost a prize fight, but I stayed.

But it wasn’t anxiety. I was not “anxious”. It was panic. I was spiraling. I was freaking out. Panic attacks are hard and brutal things to live through. Granted, there are worse problems out there but for me, panic is one of the worst things I deal with.

I don’t necessarily want props for surviving them – though I wouldn’t turn said props down. However, I also don’t want the experience diminished. Diminished is how I feel when people say “anxiety attack”. It lets them brush the whole thing off with a flip of their fingers as not particularly serious and not a big deal. Because everyone gets anxious, they think they understand. They think they know.

They don’t and I’m glad of that, glad my friends don’t deal with the same thing, but I want the word back.

I don’t need my experiences made smaller. I don’t need them sanitized.

Do you call them “panic attacks” or “anxiety attacks”?

6 thoughts on “I like calling them panic attacks.

  1. In general I prefer psychiatric terms with a set definition rather than colloquial terms that can mean different things depending on who’s using them. Panic attack is a clearly defined term; anxiety attack is not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have only experienced 3 horrendous panic attacks in my life…All three landed me in the hospital thinking “This was it, the end is near, I’ll never survive this one.” They were a noticeable difference from anxiety attacks. At least with the anxiety, I was and still, being able to talk myself through them. Knock on wood, I haven’t had either one in several months. Thank God!

    Excellent post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great writing! I agree. Words are powerful tools and we should not water down our truth. My blunt assertive speech sometimes gets me in trouble or gets me mislabeled. “Oh I was so afraid of you.” is a phrase I have heard before, more than once. Such shit! I aim to be honest though not unkind. Thank you for sharing your panic attack with such detail.

    Liked by 1 person

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