Internet Browsing Can Worsen Panic Attacks

Five ways to combat isolation

He placed the sandwich on the counter between us. I wiped my sweaty hand on my shirt and delved into my pocket for cash. The train rocked, I fell forward and head-butted the sandwich across the counter. I went to push myself up, but my palm slipped, and I butted the sandwich a second time. I could feel the people behind me getting impatient. The man behind the counter smiled with pity as he dropped change into my wet hand. My forehead was covered in sweat too. And my neck. And my back. And my crotch. And my armpits. And my arms. And my feet. And my shins. My shins. Even my shins were sweating.

It was room temperature; there was no good reason to be covered in sweat. The train was steady; there was no good reason to be stumbling down the aisle, legs shaking. There was no need to feel faint. Or to be seen through an ever-narrowing tunnel. Or to have a tingling in my arms. Or for my heart to be pounding through my rib cage. I wasn’t at all hungry; there was no good reason to be buying a ham and cheese sandwich. But I was because I had a panic attack and I didn’t know what else to do.

The ever-present anxiety had been creeping up for a couple of weeks. The second the train pulled away I had thought, “Wouldn’t this be a shit place to have a panic attack.” The rational part of my brain said, “This is no worse a place than any other, and there is never any rational reason to have a panic attack,” but it was, as usual, shouted down by the irrational side, screaming, “Oh god! It’s too late! If we’ve had the thought, then it’s already begun! There’s nothing we can do! Oh god!” I became light headed as the adrenaline shot through my body.

The trip to the food carriage was an attempt at distraction. Distraction from my own company, from the irrational thoughts – a distraction from my mind. Breathing exercises, relaxation tapes, mental visualisation – these have never worked for me. Breathing exercises remind me that I can’t breathe, relaxation tapes remind me that I can’t relax, and mental visualisations remind me that I’m… well, I am going mental. Bollocks to going anywhere near my mind. Distraction; that’s the way.

 The more you avoid the situations that cause you anxiety, the more anxiety they will cause 

Eye contact helps. You feel slightly less alone. Just looking at that server as he handed me my change, that helped. So, as I stumbled along the four carriages back to my seat, I looked about for a smiling stranger. A genial-looking middle-aged woman is good. You can imagine she’s a motherly figure, or a hot cougar, depending on the severity of your anxiety. Or both, depending on the severity of your Oedipal complex. An old man’s smile can remind you of your granddad and Christmas and comfy armchairs. For me, an attractive person is best; you can imagine … well, all sorts. But everyone was looking down and looking at their phone screens or their laptops or their tablets. Their foreheads reflected spreadsheets and Facebook and Minecraft. Their faces were all grey/blue. I started spinning out. Everything looked grey and colourless, and I felt completely unanchored. I was floating with no direction and with nobody and nothing to hold me down. Nothing to aim for and grab on to. Just grey, colourless, lifeless strangers.

I got back to my seat. All I could think was that I’d never been OK; I just wanted to be curled up in a padded white room and given drugs and told everything would be OK. I looked around for one last chance at human reassurance. Nothing. I got my phone out, the final distraction. I spent the next 50 minutes on Instagram, Duolingo, Snapchat, Tinder, Facebook, YouTube. Watching videos of cats looking at cucumbers. Doing a BuzzFeed quiz called “Which Cheese Is Your Love-life?”

I fell a rabbit hole with the “related videos” dropdown bar on YouTube: Vengaboys to East 17 to Limp Bizkit to Fall Out Boy. Starting again and going from Kendrick Lamar to Jay Z to Beyoncé to Destiny’s Child to Kelly Rowland to Hot In Herre. At one point I watched three Fall Out Boy videos back to back. No one has ever done that before.

The first thing you learn in your NHS prescribed cognitive behavioural therapy, six months after you begged your GP for help, four months after constant panic attacks led to a breakdown, and two months after you bought a book that says all that your trainee CBT therapist will ever tell you, is that the worst thing you can do, when suffering from anxiety, is avoidance. The more you avoid the situations that cause you anxiety, the more anxiety they will cause, and soon enough the number of situations that cause you anxiety will increase. Your life will become narrower, and the world will seem scarier.

Words by Joshua Williams:

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