Panic at the dress shop: 4 secrets to wedding dress shopping when you have a panic disorder

Guest post by Ellen
pink two piece custom couture dress by julia miren dresses alternative wedding ideas from Offbeat Wed (formerly Offbeat Bride)
Photo courtesy of Julia Miren Dresses

Panic disorder is a tricksy hobbit — it can manifest in many ways, but the common experience of a panic attack involves an overwhelming sense of fear that descends when the fear response isn't necessary or justified. This is accompanied by an adrenaline flood that produces very real and upsetting physical symptoms. Although there are almost as many panic triggers as there are people living with the disorder, some of the more common triggers include being in an enclosed space or feeling unable to leave, getting too hot, and feeling scrutinised.

For brides who get panic attacks, wedding dress shopping can be a scary prospect.

I've lived with panic disorder for ten years, and it is gradually becoming more accurate to say that it lives with me. Wedding dress shopping did send some of my panic spidey-senses tingling, but by using a few tactics, I not only got through it — I enjoyed it!

Here are some tips to make wedding dress shopping with your panic attacks in tow a little easier:

1. Know thyself, and thy panic attack triggers

My triggers are: feeling too hot, feeling like I can't leave where I am, dizziness and heart palpitations (which I get sometimes when hot, tired and stressed — like after a long day of shopping). Every bridal shop I went to was warm, probably to accommodate all of the people getting their strip on. Forewarned of this, I brought lots of bottled water and dressed lightly. I have heard some salons don't allow you to eat or drink, but in my experience everyone was fine with me sipping from my water bottle between dresses, and one salesperson even brought me a mug of water while I was wearing a gown. If your salon doesn't allow this, having some water can be a great excuse to step outside and take a breather while your salesperson is hunting for the next dress.

Euphemisms are also your friend. If you need to take a break, step outside or sit down in the changing room and regroup, saying you feel “a bit unwell” or “not so good” is true, but generally most people assume physical discomfort so you don't need to broadcast your panic.

2. Keep your meds easily-accessible

I occasionally use medication to manage the symptoms of my panic and I had some with me for every appointment (note: if you use medication that affects your ability to drive, have someone with you who can drive your car home, or just cadge a ride with them or your friendly local public transport provider in the first place). As it may be difficult to have it on your person while changing, keep it in an easily-accessible pocket so you feel you can get to it fast. I found I didn't need to take anything, but knowing it was there helped. Some people who get panic attacks have comfort items, or like having their mobile phone on hand — do what you need to.

3. Bring “safe” people with you if possible, or shop alone if you need to

Just because you love someone, doesn't mean they're a great panic-attack ally! I am incredibly lucky with my bridesmaids, but if you are bringing along someone who wouldn't deal well with panic, someone you're not close to or — worst case scenario — someone who is one of your triggers, try to counterbalance them with a friendly face that you trust. Also, don't be afraid to brief your trusted folk and let them know that you may need to step out, grab water, or manage your panic in a way that works for you.

4. Wedding dress shopping advice is often gold for panic sufferers too

Get shop recommendations from other brides before you start; don't schedule more than a couple of appointments in a day; eat beforehand and wear appropriate underwear; choose a budget and stick to it; don't bring too many people; research before shopping so you don't feel overwhelmed… all of these tips will help to reduce the background stress levels and uncertainty that allows panic to gain a foothold.

The cultural myth of The Wedding Dress does nothing to alleviate the stress of shopping for one, so I strongly recommend one of my all-time favourite articles on Offbeat Bride, about how there is no single perfect dress. It helped to take the pressure off me during the shopping phase and was a definite factor in keeping my panic levels low. This take on what to do when there is no teary-eyed moment is an excellent read for any bride.

With the help of accessible water, sympathetic friends, lovely bridal shop staff, and wise internet links, I had a fantastic time wedding dress shopping. When I found my dress, I was almost a little sad that the dress shopping was over. But I still need shoes

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Comments on Panic at the dress shop: 4 secrets to wedding dress shopping when you have a panic disorder

  1. BREATHE. One manifestation of not being able to leave where you are is not being able to get out of a garment. I’ve gotten a good grip on panic attacks in recent years, but one thing that always brings it on is dressing rooms and clothes that I can’t get into/out of/escape from.

    Most of us have seen the Sex in the City episode where Carrie breaks out in hives from trying on a wedding dress she can’t remove. The fear is real.

    I close my eyes, stop TRYING to escape, and take a couple deep breaths, even if it means my arms are bound inside a garment like a straight jacket while it’s over my head and my underpants are showing.

    When you’re trapped – remove yourself mentally from that place, then proceed with less urgency. It at least gives you a little time to get out of the situation more gracefully and without passing out/freaking out. I am that lady who has ripped shirts off myself, as well as necklaces, because I Must. Get. It. Off of me. Now.

    I never had this problem until my late 20’s, and it came on like a freight train with other stressers. This tells me it’s manageable for me if I can have some foresight then manage my reaction to the triggers. Hope this helps someone.

    • I’m sorry that’s happened to you but I’m glad you shared it! Feeling trapped in a garment is a very real and scary feeling, particularly garments that fasten in ways you’re not used to. Great advice here.

  2. Yes! So much of this!

    I asked for advice before going dress shopping this summer and was thankfully graced with some awesome tips by tribesmaids.

    My biggest tip is if it feels weird, move on and cut your losses before you get into attack mode. I left an appointment that didn’t feel right and my mom was a big reason I said, “screw it” and moved on. She reminded me that I did not owe these people anything.

    • Great advice! It’s so important, and sometimes so difficult, to remember that.

  3. I started crying, blind panic, ‘trapped’ in a dressing room at David’s Bridal. I was alone, 12 mins into an hour long appointment, and I just could NOT handle it. If it all gets to be too much, remember, I was worse. I couldn’t think, couldn’t have that dress touch me, and my head was burning. All I could say when the lady came to check on me was “I just can’t”. – she said ok, asked if I wanted to put my clothes on, and I just sniffled and nodded. Once she took the dress away I felt a ton better, but still had to escape. Sales people are human. They probably won’t totally get what you are going through, but they also probably won’t be horrible to you knowing you arent ok. Later, I realized: I used to work retail, my little freak out was probably not even significant in a snowflakey-kinda-unique-OMG way. Possibly not even the weirdest part of her afternoon. Fyi: Whatever happens, it’s gonna be ok. Even if it totally isn’t ok for a while and you have to run out of a bridal shop crying with your fly still down and your shoes on wrong.

    • Yep, there are a lot of us out there (obviously I wish there were fewer!), and people in public-facing jobs (especially dealing with high-octane situations like weddings) are human. I had a spontaneous crying fit at an entirely different wedding vendor recently and they just smiled and said they’d seen it all before. I was fine afterwards, and it was ok even when it wasn’t ok for a while, just like you said.

    • David’s has ESPECIALLY claustrophobic dressing rooms! They are the size of a bathroom stall with no mirrors! My saleslady left me there for a good 10 minutes, half out of a dress I could not get out of myself, so I went back out and had my mom help me, and was almost in tears. I was definitely impatient/sassy with the saleslady after that. I left to shop elsewhere. I am a strong proponent of shopping David’s when the time is right ($99 sale!), but if something is off with the mood, just no. Not worth it. Go back another time.

  4. I have a panic disorder. Don’t really think it was a factor in my choice not to deal with the whole dress thing. I strolled by the wedding dept in Macy’s and looked at the price tag on a wedding dress and just thought seriously how stupid I would feel paying $2,000 for a dress I’d only wear for a few hours and have to save for my whole life. I bought a white lace top in Dress Barn for $30, and a white skirt in JC Penny for $25. I don’t see how it would look any different than what I’d buy in a dress, although I think it could use a belt to detract from the whole marshmellow-walking-down-the-isle look.

    One thing that did influence my choice regarding a dress that others with Panic Disorder may way to think about when choosing a dress. I remember looking at the corset my sister-in-law wore and thinking besides being uncomfortable, bad idea if you have panic attacks. Panic leads to shallow breathing……anything that is going to constrict your ability to take a deep proper breath from the diaphram when you’re starting to panic is a BAD idea. Keep those air passages free and open and breath when you start getting nervous. This from experience.

  5. Thank you so much for this.

    I had a panic attack in a dress shop once; I kind of thought I was alone in that. I went in alone, allured by a sample I saw in their window that looked a lot like what I had in my head. Though the shop was appointment-only and I intended to make an appointment and leave, the very kind salesperson told me she’d had a cancellation, so I could go ahead and try it on then.

    Deviations like that from my plan tend to trigger my anxiety. I’m not the sort of person you can call up to hang out rightthisminute. So I was already kind of eek-ish. I was also pretty intimidated; I was in a big city and it’s a high-end, very nice sort of place (the kind where they serve you champagne between dresses). Not the sort of thing I come from, and being in that sort of environment always makes me nervous.

    The dress turned out to be 90% off ($4,000 to $400, which was still more than I wanted to pay but I thought if it looked the same on me as on the mannequin it was going to be worth it to me). I was excited to try it on, and being alone in the small dressing room was just fine by me (it’s people who bother me, not tight spaces). It was when I came out that I had issues.

    A lady who was there with her daughter looked at me stepping out of the room and said, “You look just like a princess.” I turned to the mirror and realized that I did, and immediately started panicking. A big poofy ballgown, what had I been thinking? People would be STARING AT ME (which I know they’ll do anyway, but there was just so much dress to look at) and I felt like the dress was just swallowing me. I politely thanked the nice lady, told the salesperson that it was beautiful but not quite what I was looking for, and hid in the dressing room for ten minutes to cry and then get my breathing under control.

    I’ve had two dress-shopping excursions since then, with no issues. But it was a pivotal moment in that I realized that I don’t want something that elaborate (too much panic fodder); methinks I’m gonna get a simple, tea-length dress that people can still see ME in.

    • It’s amazing how many feelings about ourselves and what we want/who we are can be stirred up by dress shopping – I’m sorry it was such a traumatic experience for you, but it sounds like you have developed a clear idea of what you want, and I hope you find it!

      There is so much cultural baggage with a wedding (princess archetypes, beauty standard, etc) and being in a dress shop can bring so much of it to the fore – and that’s without adding panic to the mix. Good luck with the rest of your dress shopping, I hope you find something you love and feel happy in.

  6. I got stuck inside a corset just this week. The dressmaker I visited wanted to see if I liked it, and put in on me over my clothes. It was really tight! I don’t have panic attacks, but getting a taste of what it would feel like to suffocate did cause me a twinge of alarm. I definitely could not have danced in it. Then they tried to take it off me, but the zipper got stuck! They had to undo a lot of lacing in the back to get it off. I understand that the reason women used to faint from excitement in the old days was because of tight corsets. So I told my guy if I wore it I would swoon when I saw him waiting for me at the end of the aisle, because I couldn’t breathe! 🙂

  7. Thanks for this, though the advice came a couple of months late for me, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I’ve only started having panic attacks in the past year (I’m 31), I’ve never considered myself an anxious person, so it’s been a really tough pill to swallow. Anyway, I found wedding dress shopping stressful because I don’t like people helping me and surrounding me and I felt like I was wasting everyones time when I didn’t like a dress I tried on. I prefer to quietly do things for myself. I took my mum and two friends with me because I thought that’s what you are ‘supposed to do’ and it is supposed to be a fun bonding experience. Thing is, when I shop for clothes regularly I just go by myself and get it over with (I hate shopping), so I don’t know why I thought wedding dress shopping would be magically different somehow. I did find a dress, I was anxious the whole day, but managed to narrowly avoid a full blown panic attack thanks to a very awesome staffer at Sophies who told me ‘take your time and breathe, it’s okay if you don’t find a dress today’. In retrospect I would have been a lot better off if I’d just gone alone and got it done my way.

    • I get something similar to your feeling of wasting people’s time if you didn’t like the dress – I felt like I had to be super-positive and polite about every dress, even if it looked bad on me or didn’t meet my most basic requirements (must not be strapless, most not make me look weird – big, sweeping non-negotiables for me!). I was lucky that all of the consultants I dealt with had an attitude of ‘Hey, give this a try’, but I never learned how to say ‘No, I’m not crazy about it.’ I was afraid they would be insulted, I think, which makes NO sense.
      At one appointment I said ‘It’s nice, but I prefer the [whatever] dress’ so many times that I got scared I’d wind up buying the [whatever] dress simply because I sounded like I was praising it so much, whereas what I meant was that it was perhaps a 5 out of 10, but the one I was trying on was a 1. Looking back I have no idea why this was so hard for me. I try on clothes I don’t buy all the time.

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve developed panic symptoms comparatively late. I hope you find a way of managing them.

  8. It was so helpful for me to have my mom there, I got in a fog of overwhelmed/panicky/cranky/hot/salesperson isn’t hearing me/etc and wasn’t really able to recognize how uncomfortable I was getting, felt like I had to keep at it since we hadn’t gotten to any dresses I liked. Mom was able to say, “OK, we’re done for the day, time to go get lunch.” Which was such a help. Have someone there who can recognize when you’re getting past your comfort zone, and be assertive enough to step in if you’re not seeing it or aren’t able to speak up. I didn’t want to be rude to the salesperson, so I wasn’t really making myself heard.

  9. The dress shopping itself was fine (well, with the exception of the dress that was stuck halfway over my head, but yeah) – what I was unprepared for was the huge ‘OMG DID I DO THE RIGHT THING’ for the days after even though I had the ‘this is totally my dress’-moment (and a week in that still gets me from time to time). It was hard to recall that the next day and looking at pictures is so different than real life.

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