The Unseen Disruptions of Living with a Mental Illness

It’s early April as I write this – the evening of April 3rd, 2016, to be exact. Now the temperature has fallen back to around 42 degrees F. But it was a balmy 65 degrees when we were out walking the Aldo Leopold Wetland Management Area in Columbia Co. We were stretching our legs and taking in big healthy breaths of good Wisconsin fresh air. Relaxing, being contemplative, and Intent on the low key beauty of the marsh.

The many varieties of ducks we saw were not surprising and neither were the geese, but the eagle! The eagle was a special gift and unexpected. It soared far above us in the clear air and we delighted in its flight. Then returning it descended quite close so that I had a good view of the raptor‘s majesty. It was wondrous.

A little while later, outwardly unrelated to this day’s explorations, a feeling of impending doom cast its spell on me. I was experiencing my first panic attack in recent years. Once again it was as if an octopus had released its fluid, so dark and inky and totally encompassing was the sense of foreboding ruin. Danger lurked everywhere; there was no safe niche for me or for us. Not If I believed my false mind. Not being able to depend on one’s own mind, to know its emotions are reliable, is one of the most difficult aspects of having a mental illness. Certainly there was no danger. I was even in touch with my husband – holding his hand – yet I was struck by a chilling miasma.


Luckily, I have experience now. I recognized and knew this episode was a panic attack (please note *) . That meant my feelings weren’t accurate and I had to hold on to myself firmly enough to wait it out. Wait out the fear and wait out the panic. A cool 20 minutes, while awash in waves of alarm and high alert.  Today’s attack was pretty smooth because there was just Jim and I walking in this vicinity. When I was a younger woman, our children would have been outdoors with us, exploring for the first signs of spring. Things were awkward then for all of us.

Panic attacks can happen any time or anywhere. From my NAMI Family to Family Education Program curriculum (2013): “You might be shopping, sleeping, or in the middle of a meeting. Suddenly, your heart begins to race, your face flushes and you have trouble breathing. You feel dizzy, nauseated, out-of-control —- maybe even like you’re going to die.”

What to do?

What did I do? I kept on walking……walking at the same steady pace. Today I do not run; I do not desperately seek to hide, to retreat. And we did not begin bright cherry talk in an attempt to break free of the imploding fear. Instead, I informed Jim as to what was going on. I asked for and received a quiet squeeze and we pursued our goal, a simple late afternoon walk.

As I have found from my experience, and as psychiatric treatment and research has shown, learning about and accepting a panic attack for what it is can help lessen its effect. A panic attack is often a reaction to fear, and some of the strange physical reactions experienced during an attack are the result of the body reacting to this fear. One may become mentally anxious over a past, traumatic event and the body responds as if it will happen right away. Or a person may not only picture themselves experiencing a traumatic event, but perhaps also fear losing control and not being able to handle the current situation.  Your body goes on alert and automatic bodily reactions ensue. Your mind remains stuck on fearful thoughts.

Giving this array of physical feelings and scary thoughts a name, i.e., panic attack, cuts the phenomenon back to a human scale. I have found that the more I understand my fears, the better I am able to control them. Here are some practices I have found helpful:

  • Simple breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Walking and light aerobic exercise.
  • Confronting your fears.
    Try writing in a journal about your panic attacks. Read the description when you’re feeling better. This technique is helpful for two reasons: you’ll learn what to expect and two, you can look for patterns to find similarities between attacks. From this practice one gains some mastery which can help counter the overwhelming flood of helplessness that fear and doom brings.

It was also helpful for me to remember that panic attacks were relatively brief and not real in the sense that the doom wasn’t real.

For those whose loved one experiences panic attacks, my husband passes on this message:

“…..Simply and gently ask the person experiencing a panic attack what would make them more comfortable. In years past we tried to help by focusing on a bright sunny sky, for example, but Gail’s panic worsened and she felt rejected. Best was a calm acceptance and a safe presence while panic flooded her person. Try reminders to do deep breathing. Again, give gentle reassurance that the frightening experience will pass. Allow some time afterwards for a breather for everyone to recover before you attempt to get back to things as they were.”


(*) I’m speaking here of the experience typically termed a “panic attack.” They may be infrequent or never occur again, but if you have recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.  Please seek help.
(Return to your reading)