It happened just outside that enormous blue and yellow building. You know the one – where interior gurus and home-improvement enthusiasts flock to with mental pin-boards full of DIY hacks and delusions of interior grandeur. The day started out positively – I’d been to Ikea before so I wasn’t a stranger to the claustrophobic circular maze that you’re forced to follow like a Yellow Brick Road for overexcited homeowners.
I love Ikea, and I’ve never had a problem with crowds. It is usually my boyfriend who cowers into a ball of anxiety next to the sewing machines and it’s usually me coaxing him out of said corner with the promise that I only need a couple of spice racks and a plant pot and then we can go.
I don’t know why this particular trip was any different; perhaps it was because I was meeting up with my mum and granny – who I love and miss terribly since moving away from them; or perhaps it was something to do with the lack of air and natural light in the warehouse, which turns shoppers into home improvement zombies. Whatever it was, it resulted in a panic attack in the car park.
We had finished shopping. My mum and granny were waiting on one side of the car park to say goodbye and head back home, my boyfriend was queuing up at the Collection Point waiting for a flat-packed pedestal table and I was pushing a heavy trolley around the car park looking for my car.
Only I couldn’t find my car, as far as I was concerned it had upped and left. The last thing I remember thinking was I am not going to find my car in time, and my mum is going to leave without saying goodbye.
Totally irrational and misguided, but at the time I felt like I was in real danger.
It is hard to explain what happened next, partly because I only remember snippets of it. The overwhelming rush of dread struck me first, followed by an intense fear that I had absolutely no control over. To an observer, I was looking for my car. In reality, my car was the last thing on my mind. I was aimlessly walking around the car park, full of panic for no obvious reason. I could feel my cheeks getting hotter and my breath becoming frantic. I couldn’t make sense of my surroundings. I was confused and irritated.
I phoned my boyfriend, who has since explained that he sensed the fear in my voice immediately and knew something wasn’t right. I had no interest in speaking to him, I just wanted him to know that the car had gone and that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t expect him to come up with a solution, I just wanted to inform him of the car = gone situation. Secondary noises, voices, cars and bodies around me faded away like ghosts at an exorcism. I crossed roads frantically without looking where I was going, I didn’t care who or what I bumped into. I must have walked up and down the same road twenty times – doing absolutely nothing but panicking. The world around me didn’t feel real.
The voice on the phone offered me a simple choice. He said, “Do you want me to come outside and help you look for it, or do you want to just head over to your mum’s car and wait for me there?”
I couldn’t breathe, I was too hot, I felt claustrophobic, I couldn’t focus on any one single thought and I became physically sick.
The complete lack of control over my own body meant that trying to answer his question was pointless. I couldn’t see a difference in either option – they just blurred into one. Whatever I decided would be wrong, and then it would be too late. My inability to make a decision was the single most frightening thing I’ve ever felt.
The whole episode lasted about 15 minutes, after which everything started coming back into focus. My boyfriend was still on the phone, waiting at the car and giving me clear instructions of how to get there. My breathing slowly went back to normal, and my surroundings made sense again. It was as if I was waking up from a nightmare.
I’ve suffered from anxiety since I was a teen. I often feel squirmy and uncomfortable in social situations, I can get worked up about tiny things and I’ve been known to feel so anxious about a particular event or situation that it makes me physically ill. When I was 16 I convinced my mum that my lungs weren’t working properly because my stomach went “in and out the wrong way” when I breathed.
What is a panic attack?
According to the good old NHS, a panic attack is a “rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms”. It’s like this; you sense a potential threat in your environment, and as your body gets ready to either hold up its fists in battle or flea like a frightened robin, oxygen is sucked in quicker and your heart beat gets faster. You know when you hear stories of men and women so pumped with energy after a traumatic incident that they can lift up a fifty foot boulder with one hand to save a trio of frightened children? (That might be Hercules). Well that’s adrenaline, and instead of getting cool super strength or a heroic story to tell, panic attack sufferers lose control of their reactions, float casually away from their bodies and go into a completely useless and unhelpful dream state.
Anxiety and panic disorders are common. You are not alone. There are two sufferers in my house and we are only just getting to grips with it. Learning how to be patient with one another when you aren’t really sure what’s going on in the first place can be tough. 1 in 4 adults will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime, and since I’ve made many wrong assumptions about it in the past, I have compiled a list of things that help me if I feel a total meltdown coming on in the hope that they might help you too.
1) Keep a diary to document the sort of situation that is making you anxious.
2) Note down who you were with, and what you were doing.
3) If you can feel anxiety setting in, take yourself away from the situation.
4) Breathe normally and slowly.
5) Have a book or a piece of music to hand for when you need to distract yourself.
6) Take your time with whatever you are doing.
7) Be as organised as you possibly can be in order to get the job done quickly.
8) Verbally acknowledge that you are feeling stressed.
9) Tell someone you are feeling stressed.
For some, having schedules and sticking to specific times and routines can make them feel more in control of their anxiety. For me, it’s the opposite! I need to feel like I have literally all the time in the world. I have to pace myself and go slowly. If I do anything in a rush, I feel like I don’t have enough time or space or air.
How can I help someone who suffers from anxiety?
If you happen to find yourself in the middle of someone else’s panic attack, take a deep breath and make sure your friend or relative knows you are there to help.
The absolute worst thing you can possibly do is tell the sufferer to calm down. Just don’t do it, it will have the polar opposite effect of what you’re going for. You should probably avoid any of the following too: What’s the matter? What happened? What’s wrong with you? Why are you acting so odd? Calm down. Relax. Just breathe. Pull yourself together. There is nothing stressful about this situation. You’re embarrassing me. I’ll just leave you to it. Let me know when you’ve calmed down.
Say things like I’m here for you. What do you need? Everything’s okay. You are in control. Breathe slowly. This feeling won’t last long. I know this feels awful, but it will pass. Do whatever you need to do. There’s no pressure.
When my panic attack ended, I felt really tired, teary and needy. Your understanding shouldn’t end when the episode does. It’s so important that whoever is suffering feels safe and loved and supported.
If you suffer from anxiety, panic attacks or panic disorders you are part of a very large community – you should never feel guilty for the way you feel, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. Whatever triggers your anxiety, it can be managed and there is a bucket-load of support out there. Oh, and if you tend to feel anxious or panicky in large crowds (like my boyfriend) I highly recommend that you avoid Ikea on a Saturday.
If you have had a similar experience, I would really love to hear from you. The more people who share their stories the more people we can help.