Panic! At the Toilet: Dealing With a Panic Attack

By Crystal Lindell, Columnist

When I read the notes from the paramedics, I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Pt. was sitting on toilet. Began to hyperventilate,” they wrote.

I finally found a title for my future autobiography! Hey, it’s my panic attack. I can make jokes if I want to.

The whole thing happened about a week ago and, as you can tell by the notes from the EMTs, it happened while I was going to the bathroom. There aren’t a lot of good places to have a panic attack, but I can tell you from experience that the toilet is an especially bad one.

Nothing brought it on. I had literally just woken up. And I was in the middle of a text conversation with my best friend about how insanely expensive humidifiers are when it hit.

It’s not as though I was contemplating the meaning of life or freaking out about the idea of being single forever, or even thinking about our current president any more than usual. I was literally just trying to find the best way to wake up without dry sinuses.

For the lucky ones out there who aren’t aware of what happens during a panic attack, let me explain.

The first thing to know is that the whole thing is scary as hell. If you don’t know what’s happening, you might think you’re dying. As in, this is it. This is how it all ends. On the toilet. Like Elvis.

It starts with this weird urge to hyperventilate. For no reason. Literally. No. Reason. That, in turn, causes chaos.

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I started screaming. Then, sweat suddenly drenched my entire body. And soon after that, things started to shut down, as my body rushed blood to the most important areas, like my heart, assuming extremities were expendable. So, my feet and then my calves went numb and then they started cramping. My hands curled under and stopped functioning. And eventually my tongue also went numb.  

Saying it’s really effing scary is an understatement. 

Thankfully, my brothers were both home and heard me screaming. When they came to check on me, I mumbled with my non-functioning tongue that I needed them to call 911. I live two doors down from the fire department, so the paramedics got to my house pretty quickly. That was helpful. 

And, I have to say, they were insanely good at dealing with the situation. 

One of them rushed in and knelt down in front of me, grabbed my hands, looked me in the eye and said, “Crystal, what’s happening to you is completely normal. I need you to try to breathe with me.” And then he guided my breaths while another paramedic got some oxygen ready. Once they put that on me, I was able to regain function in my limbs again. My hands slowly started to uncurl and I was able to kind of calm down. 

That’s about when I also regained the wherewithal to really understand exactly what was happening. Three young paramedic guys, in my bathroom, helping me breathe, while I sat on the toilet, in a T-shirt and hot pink underwear wrapped around my ankles. 

I’ve had better moments. 

I declined to go the hospital mostly because I knew that I would be ok after I calmed down. But it’s likely I had such a severe reaction because I was dehydrated, and IV fluids probably wouldn’t have hurt. Instead, I just drank some Gatorade.

Afterward, I was completely drained of energy and ended sleeping the rest of the day. I can tell you that I also have spent every day since genuinely concerned that I would have another panic attack any time I went to the bathroom. So that’s fun. 

And honestly, I have been struggling to process the emotional trauma of losing control of my body. Just writing this column, and remembering everything that happened, has been enough to make my heart race with fear. But I am seeing my psychiatrist in a couple days to talk about future coping strategies, so hopefully that will help.

I know this is the “Pain" News Network, and I struggled with whether I should write about a panic attack in this space. But panic attacks are really painful in lots of ways, and many people living with chronic pain also deal with anxiety. 

And I while I had one 7 years ago, I didn’t actually know that it had been a panic attack until I heard one of favorite YouTuber beauty bloggers describe something similar happening to her. I was like, “Oh, wow. That’s exactly what happened to me!”

And I can tell you that the most important thing to realize during a panic attack is that it is just that: a panic attack. Because a stroke or heart attack seem pretty similar. And thinking you’re going to die doesn’t help calm you down. So maybe this article will help someone else who unexpectedly finds themselves hyperventilating on the toilet someday. If nothing else, it’s a good reason to clean your bathroom. 

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Crystal Lindell is a journalist who lives in Illinois. She loves Taco Bell, watching "Burn Notice" episodes on Netflix and Snicker's Bites. She has had intercostal neuralgia since February 2013.

Crystal writes about it on her blog, “The Only Certainty is Bad Grammar.”

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.