I started writing about something completely different when I first sat down. It seemed like a good topic at the time and then dinner needed my attention and I took a few minutes to decompress after my day. Then, from out of nowhere, a panic attack hit.
I’ve had a panic attack or two before; they’re awful. But what struck me this time, after coming out of it, was how they’re often portrayed in books and on screen. Those portrayals rarely show the reality of what one looks like. At least from what I have seen.
Panic attacks, flashbacks, and other anxiety or trauma related responses tend to follow a pretty clear progression when we read or watch a fictional version of them. There’s a trigger that can be clearly identified either at that moment or after processing the event. There are clear and linear images running through the individual’s mind. They manifest some sort of obvious physical sign of experiencing the flashback or the panic attack. And they finally calm down and are fine and go on about their business.
I am generalizing, and I realize that. I have read and seen some much more accurate reflections before. I have seen some variations on the above progression. But speaking not only as one writer to another but also as someone who has had both panic attacks and flashbacks, might I suggest that a more realistic approach would be of benefit in perhaps demystifying what someone experiences in those moments?
First, there is not always a clear trigger. There is a trigger, but the person experiencing these struggles may have no idea ever what the cause was. And at the time that it occurs, someone observing will probably think: “What just happened?!” Even if they know what a panic attack or episode of flashbacks looks like, and even if they are intimately acquainted with the person in question, the anxiety may have come on so quickly that it made no sense. This lack of reason often increases the anxiety because the person just wants to be okay.
In terms of what’s going through the person’s head, in a word, panic. Duh, right? Thus panic attack. Well, as obvious as that seems, what is often written is a clear picture going through the person’s mind. Their mind is not clear enough for that. They’re catching glimpses of something that horrifies them. And they’re desperately grasping for some part of the present reality. This one, I think, bears a real life, very fresh example.
As I was in the midst of my panic attack tonight, my dear husband was holding me, giving me enough space not to feel squashed, and repeatedly reminding me to breathe. To someone outside the moment, that might sound ridiculous. It wasn’t. Not in the least. For one thing, I wasn’t breathing. At least not normally. For another thing, it was a firm command I could hold onto. Breathe is a simple, one word anchor to reality. As my mind and heart were racing, I was clinging to that one word like my life depended on it, because well, it kinda did. Breathing is a rather vital function of the human body. But the point is, there was no clear movie projector running in my mind, just a conglomeration of panic and more panic which was carefully interrupted by my husband’s calm commands.
If you know the person experiencing the panic attack or flashback, you might understand the physical signs of their panic attack. You might not. Mine started probably about the time that I froze while rubbing my husband’s back. But unless you were looking right at me, in the eyes, and had reason to suspect something had triggered a strong response, you wouldn’t know that I was starting to fade into panic. The next sign was crying hysterically over something really not worth the tears. This eventually progressed to the point of not being able to breathe normally, which is when it became evident I was panicking. The only obvious physical sign of panic was when I was at the very worst of it, but there were plenty of other things along the way that showed something was wrong. They just didn’t necessarily instantly and on their own shout, “PANIC!”
When a panic attack or episode of flashbacks ends, it isn’t usually instantaneous and doesn’t lead right back into normal routine. It’s absolutely exhausting to go through one of these things and it takes a while to calm down and get back to a point where it’s okay to go back to usual activities. There is a lot more going on physically than meets the eye and the body needs some time to reset itself.
Writing flashbacks and panic attacks the way they are often portrayed may help move your story along to communicate something from your character’s past, but it also makes it harder for the people who really experience them to explain to their friends and family what they are going through. What we say as writers has an impact on what our readers think they can expect in reality. So where we can depict reality in our fiction, it is wise to do so.