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Self-Harm During a Panic Attack

June 28, 2021 Martyna Halas

When you experience a panic attack, the physical sensations are so intense they often cloud your judgment. For example, you may hyperventilate while the room seems to spin and your heart is about to race out of your chest. Some people may also feel like they're cornered in a flight-or-fight situation and may even self-harm during a panic attack. Why does that happen? I'm not sure I have the answers, but I can offer my personal insight.

Why I Self-Harm During a Panic Attack

Firstly, let me say I'm fortunate enough not to experience panic attacks very often. However, I can count a few instances in my life when they did happen to me, and usually, I was already going through some internal battles when they occurred. For example, I had an awful incident when I was in a big city in the middle of a huge parade — a place where I should not have been, given my dislike for crowds — and suddenly, I felt like I couldn't breathe. 

But you see, it wasn't just that I was uncomfortable in crowded spaces. Each time I experienced a panic attack, I was already going through depression and felt stressed due to my life circumstances. So, could it be that I felt like I was physically running out of air because, on the inside, I felt cornered and swamped?

At some point, I started experiencing different kinds of panic attacks, too. But, this time, I wasn't among lots of strangers in a public space — on the contrary. Instead, I was at home, having a heated argument with a close person. If you've never experienced a panic attack while arguing with someone, I can only describe it as an implosion of emotions and an overwhelming state where you feel betrayed and under attack. For me, the only way to snap out of this losing battle was to jump into flight mode and take it out on myself.

As I reflect on the experience, I can say that I self-harmed because fighting triggers my past trauma and makes me panic. I feel threatened, unsafe, and helpless, so I jump into an unhealthy survival mode to cope with the situation and, perhaps, to ground myself.

How It Feels to Self-Harm During a Panic Attack (And How Your Partner Can Help)

If like me, you've snapped into self-harm during an argument with someone, it might be worth having an honest conversation with that person. You might find out that perhaps this person is triggering you, and you shouldn't be around them anymore. Or, they might cooperate and help calm you down next time you have a panic attack.

In this video, I talk about how it feels to self-harm during panic attacks and ways to address the incident with your partner.

Have you ever self-harmed during a panic attack? Let me know in the comments.

APA Reference
Halas, M. (2021, June 28). Self-Harm During a Panic Attack, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, December 2 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/speakingoutaboutselfinjury/2021/6/self-harm-during-a-panic-attack



Author: Martyna Halas

Find Martyna on Facebook, InstagramMedium and on her blog.

Elyse
June, 12 2022 at 9:28 pm

My son is having panic attacks daily. I don’t see him that often however he spent the night last night. When he started panicking he was hitting himself in the legs. I am concerned and we are not that close. What’s wrong with him?

June, 27 2022 at 3:11 pm

Hi Elyse,
I am not the author of this post; unfortunately, I am not a doctor, either. While some HealthyPlace authors are, many of us (myself included) are simply regular folks with personal experience.
In other words, I can't offer you a diagnosis for your son. But I can tell you that if you are worried, it would be best to try and get him to a doctor. Try not to force the issue; this could make him dig his heels in and refuse to go, or be unreceptive to treatment. If at all possible, try and let him know simply that you are worried for him, and that a doctor can help prevent him seriously injuring himself. If you think suggesting therapy might go poorly, try suggesting he see a regular general physician first—this can be a good jumping off point, and plus, it may help rule out anything physical that could be going on.
You might also consider talking to someone else (like if he's married or if there's someone else in the family he's closer to) but only if you are reasonably certain this person knows about his panic attacks. It could make things worse if you accidentally "out" him to someone he's not ready to talk about this with.
If none of this seems plausible (or if you try it but it does not go well), you might consult a doctor or therapist yourself. While this isn't as directly helpful as HIM seeing someone, you can rely on a medical professional's expertise to help guide what you do next so that you can be sure you're doing everything you can to help your son, without accidentally making things harder on him than they have to be. (It's surprisingly easy to do, even with the best intentions at heart.)
I hope that helps. If you have any further comments, questions, or concerns, feel free to reply here or elsewhere on the blog.
Sincerely,
Kim

Mavis
May, 3 2022 at 3:33 am

Usually I’m alone when having panic attacks, or I try to get alone. I don’t like attention when it happens, it feels to personal. they come pretty slow and I usually invite them I feel very detached in them and death becomes alluring. I’ve punched bitten choked with hands or a phone cord lightly stabbed at myself with a fork and hit myself with smooth rocks all the wile breathing heavily crying and when I’m alone yelling screaming and talking to myself as if I’m scum. I get disappointed but I make myself stop when I feel I’m going to far. I’ve never had cuts I wouldn’t do that to myself but I often have bruises all over I kind of see them as beautiful and for some reason take pride in the worse ones. Im an overall silly happy medium type of girl but sometimes I dip im not unhealthy though and my parents said we’re gonna try putting me on medicine. I don’t like the thought of having to rely on it but im not against it all the same. Sorry tmi lol

May, 9 2022 at 10:20 am

Hi Mavis,
Thanks for your comment. I understand about not wanting to draw attention with your panic attacks; my instinct is also to get away if I'm not feeling right (physically or mentally!). You don't need to apologize for sharing "TMI"—I'm glad that you felt comfortable with reaching out to share your thoughts and concerns. It's good to look for support when you need it.
Your panic attacks sound very difficult; I'm sorry you're struggling with them. But it sounds like you've reached out to your parents for help (which is great!) and for some people, medicine can be a very powerful tool for getting and staying healthy. I understand not wanting to rely on medicine; I have felt the same way in the past. Just know that taking medicine doesn't make you less, or weak, or broken in any way. Just as you wouldn't (I hope!) feel bad for taking medicine if you were dealing with, say, pneumonia, there is no shame in taking medicine to help you cope with your panic attacks.
Regardless of how long you stay on your medication, though, it's always good to incorporate other (non-pharmaceutical) coping methods as well that you can rely on to manage your panic attacks. Mindfulness techniques (like breathing exercises), yoga and/or regular aerobic exercise, creative outlets (like art therapy or journaling), and more can be really helpful here—if you aren't already trying these out, consider trying one or two at a time and see how they make you feel. (I've had a handful of panic attacks in the past, and for me, 4 x 4 breathing helped a LOT—but everyone is different, so if it doesn't work for you, feel free to try something else.)
I hope that helps! If you have any more questions, comments, or concerns, comment here or elsewhere on the blog. I'll be around. :)
Sincerely,
Kim

Brandy
July, 14 2022 at 11:23 am

As someone who has had panic attacks since childhood, when you mentioned medication...I not sure how old you are, but the docs put me on antidepressants at 13, no therapy (I refused, and they let me just take a pill instead of figuring out how to deal with growing up etc) they tried me on so many meds, some of which had horrific side effects. An anti-psychotic specifically. It made me freak out at church youth group. I was hiding in the bathroom under the sink hyperventilating.
Long story shorter, try any and everything your doctor suggests prior to resorting to medication. Especially if you're under 25. This is because your decision making part of your brain (frontal lobe) is still developing and will not be finished until after youre 24. Sometimes medication IS needed and IS VERY helpful-usually in combination with therapy/counseling..I just wanted you to know how it affected me. Hopefully if you're young enough I can save you the pain and wasted time (not to mention damage to my kidneys/liver-some rx hurt other organs/systems after taking for a long time.) Oh! Bc you have panic attacks, if they put you on alprazolam-brand name Xanax-also keep in mind taking that medication for 10 or more consecutive years, younger people can develop early onset dementia, which they can give you another pill to fix. Lol ❤ good luck!

July, 18 2022 at 12:04 pm

Hi Brandy,
I'm not the author of this post, but as the current writer for the blog I wanted to respond in that author's stead.
First, I'm so sorry to hear about the bad experiences you've had with medications and their side effects. I personally have never taken medication specifically for my anxious/depressive symptoms, but I am of a similar mindset that it's best to try other avenues first before resorting to these types of medications. Not only can the side effects be terrible for some people (as you unfortunately discovered), but in some cases they are simply not necessary — far better to try gentler options first, I think.
That being said, you're absolutely right as well that in some cases, medication is necessary and can even be life-saving. I know a few people personally who have struggled with severe mental health issues and are doing much better now that they are on the right medication — but the keyword there is "right." It can take time and patience to find the right balance of the best medications (as this is unique to each individual), so it's very important to work with a doctor that you're comfortable with and truly trust if you do go the medication route. A good doctor should never push you to hop on meds right away, and they should never try to pressure you into staying on them if they are leaving you feeling worse off than before.
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, and your advice regarding specific medications. I hope things are going much better for you now, and I wish you all the best going forward!
Take care,
Kim

Janelle
September, 26 2021 at 4:08 am

Hi!! I would like to say that reading this article helped me recognize that what I experienced when I was waiting in the line of the club a few months ago was indeed a panic attack. I was overwhelmed by crowds especially since it’s a pandemic but my friends wanted to go, so I forced myself to go. In line, I just felt like I was stuck and the anxiety kept growing, so I would turn to self-harm as well to try and get myself to focus on that instead of the internal panic. Thank you for sharing this article, you have articulated my feelings very well!

October, 13 2021 at 10:19 am

Hi Janelle,
I am not the author of this particular post, but I'm so glad you found it helpful. Panic attacks are scary, and it's completely understandable that you might turn to something like self-harm for relief. Anxiety can definitely be a big trigger; at least it was in my experience. I hope this realization helps you take steps in the future to manage your anxiety in other ways; sometimes just naming a thing (e.g. "I am having a panic attack") can help lessen the intensity, even if just a little bit—and that little bit of breathing room can sometimes give you space enough to think of other ways to cope, such as breathing exercises or other mindfulness techniques that don't require special tools or extra preparation. (For me, the few times that I've had a panic attack, the 4 x 4 breathing technique really helped ground me. So did eating a small amount of peanut butter, for some reason. Still haven't figured that one out. :) )
Wishing you the best with your recovery,
Kim

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