One morning, as I stayed inside our school’s publication office, I noticed a junior writer entering with a pale face and her handkerchief covering her mouth. She is also a member of my organization back then. Her senior writer immediately approached her and asked what was going on. She couldn’t respond and she started shaking.
I rushed to her and made her sit down. Automatically, I recognized her symptoms. She couldn’t focus, her breathing is shortening, her hands are trembling, and her tears are flowing. She is having a panic attack.
According to the article of Mayo Clinic (2018), “A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.”
I can imagine this to be terrifying on my co-member’s part. It always hits differently to each individual and I can see she is visibly confused and weak from this aroused state. It’s like your body is ready to fight or flight but the danger is nowhere to be seen, rather, internal and harder to understand. My role is to untangle this ball of intertwined thoughts and feelings to shed light on what she is experiencing.
My first instinct is to ground her to her surroundings and get her to a comfortable level so she can open up her feelings. I asked the young writer to control her breathing. A classic breathing technique of inhaling air for four seconds and holding it in for seven seconds and then release deeply. I did it with her, but she remained her eyes closed, squinting hard. I asked if she wanted to sip water and asked the people around to help her fetch one. Simultaneously, I massaged her arms and legs in order to relax her tense muscles. A common hallmark of anxiety is muscle tension and one of the ways to make the person mindful of their body is through relaxation.
It’s like they are not familiar with how their body feels like when well-rested due to long periods of anxiety. As the responder, I should bring her back to the present by making her mindful of her five senses.
When I saw her giving more active feedback, I began asking small questions. Where she had been, what was she doing before entering the office, who was she with, etc. She spoke with one or two words. “Class,” she covered her face with her handkerchief. Finally, when I asked what she was feeling, she said another word.
“Disappointment,” she replied.
This is a good sign. It means we have something to work on. I told her that she can share anything with me and it would only be between the two of us. Instead of crouching down in front of her, I sat beside her to make it less confrontational. The only thing in my mind is to make her feel that I am not here to judge but to only listen. With me, it’s a safe space.
Also, I encouraged her to slowly open her eyes and to let the handkerchief down. I continued to massage her cold fingers while prompting the conversation to continue. At this point, I timed her panic attack to have a full-blown ten-minute span before she felt at ease.
Going back to her feeling of disappointment, she didn’t spill specific details but she felt like she failed her classmates. I’m guessing this is a group project and she didn’t meet her group’s expectations. To her, this feels like a major downfall and that is valid. However, I didn’t want her to ruminate on the situation and help her realize that it may be an overgeneralization. Maybe, in fact, her classmates didn’t think that highly negative of her and she can always make up for it.
When we are anxious, we tend to have a tunnel light mentality. We only see one path and one end. “I did this, so they must think this is…” It’s a very black-and-white perspective when in truth people think differently and you can’t control how they would react. The important thing is, you won’t be the first one to tell yourself the negative labels or else, it’s easy to break your self-esteem. Because who else would protect your own worth and value? It’s only you.
She calmed down afterward and then I saw… a smile! For a moment, her life revolved around a dark cloud and I was a witness to that. But, as cliche as it may sound, she found a rainbow in the end. We all have moments of anxiety and for the most part, it’s normal. It’s part of life.
Unexpected occurrences might signal us that we didn’t let fear or negative feelings express itself at times it was needed to be.
It’s like my co-writer’s unfelt disappointment inside the classroom. She kept it in until it exposed itself inside the office. As for the wounded healers out there, to sum it up:
- Ground the person to the present. Keep them in touch with their five senses.
- Have them try breathing techniques.
- Check for tensed muscles and relax through massages or other techniques.
- Present a healing presence. It’s not the time to give advice, so just be there.
- Actively listen so you know what questions to ask.
Stay tuned for more stories from your #IshTheWoundedHealer.