Panic attacks can seem to come out of the blue. When and where the next panic attack might strike can be unpredictable.
Understandably, the fear that it could happen in public can lead to the fear of it being extremely embarrassing.
Fear of being embarrassed by a panic attack can become more frightening than the fear of the panic attack itself.
This fear can cause someone to start limiting their activities, staying home more and more, or only getting out in situations where they feel very safe. Going this route can become a slippery slope toward agoraphobia.
Fretting over "what if" scenarios, the mind can go into overdrive, imagining worse case scenarios that may not ever happen.
It may be helpful to simply ask yourself, "How likely is that to happen?" and "If it did, could I find a way to deal with it?"
Following are a few scenarios that people fear a panic attack could happen in, and their fear of how it could embarrass them.
Walking Down the Street:
"What if I am walking down the street and have a panic attack? What if I get lightheaded and my legs get all jello like, and I feel like I will pass out? I will have to sit down, and everyone will stare at me. I couldn't stand to have all those people staring at me, like I am some kind of weirdo."
You could ask yourself how likely it would be that you would have a panic attack, and how likely it would be that everyone would stare at you.
You could ask yourself if you could somehow deal with everyone staring at you, if indeed, they did.
You could also ask yourself, if you are such a mind reader, if you know for a fact that they would think you are weird.
Is it possible they would feel concerned, and would watch to make sure you are able to get back up on your own, before they offer help?
Is it possible that nobody would stare? Is it possible that people are going about their business and don't really notice or think it unusual that someone would sit down?
One way to test this out would be to go out for a walk in public and see if there are places to sit down.
You could even try sitting down for a little bit to see if anyone notices. This could possibly help stop the worry that it would be embarrassing.
One time, while crossing the street, I tripped over a pothole and landed on my knee. It was very painful. I hobbled back to the street, and sat down in the grass just in front of the sidewalk. I was crying.
A young woman appeared with a bag of ice for my knee. She had seen it happen from a few doors down, and asked the staff at a nearby restaurant for ice for me.
Nobody else seemed to notice me sitting there crying! People went about their business as though I were not there.
"What if I have a panic attack on the plane, and my seat mate notices? They will think I am crazy!"
You could ask yourself what your particular type of panic attacks look like and how likely it is that your seat mate would notice.
Some people who struggle with anxiety and panic will tell their seat mate up front that they get nervous about flying. Then it will be out in the open, and you will find out what your seat mate thinks.
Chances are, they might become a helpful ally, who could distract you with conversation, if that is what you want. They may offer understanding, and tell you that someone they know also struggles with anxiety when they fly.
In a Restaurant with Friends:
"What if I have a panic attack in the restaurant, and have to leave, or it causes a scene? I couldn't stand all that attention, with everyone staring at me."
Some people deal with this up front, by telling their friends they worry about having a panic attack in the restaurant. That could lead to the friends expressing concern and support, and asking how they could help, if it did happen.
That in itself could dispel the fear of embarrassment, and take the edge off the anxiety. It could lead to a more relaxed dinner over all, and make a panic attack less likely to happen.
Some people deal with the restaurant situation by having a contingency plan, just in case.
That may include the plan to get up and go to the restroom, which gives a little break from the situation. They may then do some calming breaths or a little stretching to relax themselves.
They may also give themselves permission to leave if they have to, telling their friends they are suddenly ill.
I hope these few tips will get you thinking about ways to be able lo keep getting out there, and not becoming a shut in over fear of embarrassing yourself.
So no matter what worse case scenario you imagine, ask yourself if this fear really justifies cancelling your plans and staying home.
Hopefully your answer would be, "Being embarrassed won't kill me. Being embarrassed is something I am willing to risk, in order to get out there and do things."
Panic attacks are very treatable. This article is not meant to replace therapy. It is meant to give some hope and some ideas about how others have overcome their fear of embarrassment over possible panic attacks in public.
Kate Boswell MFT is a therapist in Marina del Rey, CA. 90292. She helps anxious young men and women become calmer and more confident. She helps adults of all ages who are struggling with stressful life situations. Kate is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Lic.# MFC20851. Nearby communities served are Playa del Rey, Playa Vista, Del Rey, Mar Vista, Culver City, Venice, and Westchester. Kate may be reached at (310) 658-3158.