Meltdowns VS Panic Attacks
This is going to be a bit of a PSA on the difference between meltdowns and panic attacks, because there are many out there who don’t know the difference. I will describe how each of these looks for me, but keep in mind that everyone is different and has different symptoms and triggers, so what looks like a meltdown in me could be completely different from someone else’s experiences.
Panic Attacks: I don’t get these very often. They usually occur as a result of something triggering my PTSD, like hearing voices or noises outside my door, being followed too closely by a stranger, having someone touch me unexpectedly from behind or seeing or hearing reminders of the event that caused the trauma.
My panic attacks cause me to hyperventilate, freeze and go rigid, or run and hide behind the nearest door or object. My whole body shakes and I can’t catch my breath; my extremities tingle, cramp and go numb from the excess oxygen caused by my heavy breathing. I feel outside myself, like I’m observing the world from a distance, and I get nauseated and feel sick. These usually last until whatever triggered them has abated, or until someone helps me get my breathing under control.
Meltdowns: I get meltdowns a few times a month, and they are most often the result of sensory overload. I am very sensitive to loud noises and crowds of people, and being surrounded by them for too long can trigger a meltdown. They can also be caused by emotional distress, most frequently anger or frustration, and sometimes anxiety or confusion.
For me, meltdowns feel like an explosion inside my chest and stomach. I hyperventilate in an effort to gain control over the intense rage or panic I feel, but it’s not the out of control “I can’t breathe” hyperventilation I get with panic attacks; it’s a deliberate attempt to calm myself down before the feelings erupt. Next I’ll start stimming hard with my hands; flapping, clapping, squeezing, wringing my fingers, anything to keep my hands occupied so I can’t hit myself. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start banging my fists on my legs in an effort to externalize some of the internal pain, and that most often rapidly devolves into head banging and yelling. I don’t say anything, it’s more of an animalistic wail, the kind people make when they’ve injured themselves and are in great pain. If the head banging isn’t enough, I’ll resort to biting my hands and fingers in an effort to let off steam. At this point, if anyone tries to touch, talk to or intervene with me in any way, they are in danger of being lashed out at physically. I feel scared and trapped, and other people only make the sensory problems worse. The only two things that work to end a meltdown for me are restraint and/or time. If I’m left alone, the meltdown will burn itself out and I’ll crash with exhaustion, but not until I’ve done some significant damage to myself. Restraint when done properly can also end a meltdown, because it creates a deep squeezing pressure over my core and helps me calm down.
Sometimes panic attacks can turn into meltdowns. If the fear I’m feeling from a PTSD trigger is great enough, it can cause me to lose control, as it feels like the world is ripping apart at the seams. I’ll hit myself in a desperate effort to regain control of my body and emotions, and those first strikes can quickly escape my conscious ability to stop when I want. It feels like riding down a hill in a wagon; there are no brakes, I just keep going faster and faster until things level out for long enough or I crash into something on the way down.
The important thing to remember when you see someone having either a meltdown or a panic attack is that neither episode is within the person’s control. We can’t just stop because you want us to, and we want it to be happening even less than you do, so be patient and kind, and if you interact with someone who has such incidents regularly, ask during a calm moment what you can do to help them, because getting frustrated or dismissive is not helpful for anyone.
Anyone with any questions about meltdowns or panic attacks is welcome to message me, and I’ll do my best to answer!