My Panic Disorder is a Part of Me: Discovering My Mental Health
There is a feeling you get when you are on a roller coaster and the ride suddenly freefalls.
Your stomach drops and you feel like you have a million butterflies wreaking havoc on your insides.
It's a unique feeling.
You want to experience it over and over, feel that rush, and at the same time never go through that sensation again.
Now imagine having that feeling all the time, like waves repeatedly breaking on the sand. A constant pummeling of feelings that leaves you breathless, nauseous and simply exhausted.
That is what my panic attacks feel like.
It’s a sense of hopelessness, of uncontrollable body movements and emotions. It's the shaking of my hands to the point of not being able to hold a pen. It's the weight of lead on my chest that won't allow me to take a full breath.
And it's the unwelcome thoughts that won't let me calm down.
A Slow Path To Discovery
Before the spring of 2018, I had never had a panic attack.
There were instances when my nerves went on overdrive and I felt sick to my stomach about something or the other but never had my "nerves" prevented me from performing any tasks.
It was always just the "normal" nerves you get when you have to do a presentation in front of a
bunch of people or something similar.
Never had I lost control of my physical body to the point where my shaking hands would not allow me to even hold a book let alone read it.
About six months before my full blown panic attack I started seeing symptoms that were new to me. I had felt nerves before.
But they were the normal butterflies in the stomach, 'fight or flight' response to having to give a presentation or speak to someone I didn’t know.
This instance was different. My hands began to shake and I was having trouble getting in a full breath.
It only lasted about 5 minutes but it really made me stop and think. I had never had such an obvious physical reaction to my nerves before.
Since it didn't last long and it didn't happen again I put the incident out of my mind.
I didn't think about it again until the spring of 2018 when my "nerves" became too much and panic took over.
Triggering the Panic
My first full-blown panic attack was due to a missed assignment (a rough draft of a 15-page grant proposal) in one of my graduate classes.
Now, I know what you're thinking: A missed school assignment is nothing to have a panic attack over! It's just an assignment, what's the worst that could happen?
You're right. It was just an assignment. There was no need to panic.
And yet I did.
I can still feel my stomach drop as I realized I had missed my assignment and I did not know how I was going to catch up.
I can still hear the buzzing in my ears. Feel my limbs shaking uncontrollably. Feel my breath catch in my chest unable to exhale.
It wasn't rational.
It didn't have to be.
Understanding my Mental Health
As a psychology major, I know the difference between a panic attack and a panic disorder.
A panic disorder means that you're constantly having panic attacks, you fear having them and avoid situations that can trigger them.
In the coming weeks, my panic attacks continued. I became unable to even look at my assignment without triggering one (which meant I avoided it altogether) and sleep had become a fond, distant memory as insomnia took over.
It was a weird time in my life.
During the day you couldn't tell anything was wrong with me. I pasted a smile on my face and no one was the wiser of the frustration, hopelessness, and fear I felt inside. But my nights consisted of me crying myself to a restless sleep for a couple of hours around 5 AM.
For two months I had panic attacks almost daily. My mind would not stop jumping to conclusions. I would think about my assignment (which I received an extension for) and would panic.
Ice would run through my veins. I would feel like my body was moving on super speed as I shook uncontrollably. Breathing was a chore. And an overwhelming urge to just break down and cry would take over.
It wasn't getting better.
I needed help.
Talking Through the Panic
I, eventually, sought professional help to try and stop, or lessen, the attacks.
Talking with a therapist was interesting.
For one, I felt numb when I spoke to her. It was like the complete opposite of how I felt when I was having a panic attack.
While the panic attacks felt like my emotions were on overdrive and I had no control, talking to my therapist was like being an observer of my life rather than the one living it. I felt detached. It was difficult in those moments to understand how my feelings could get so out of control.
Secondly, I realized the brain is a complicated organ.
My therapist helped me see that the reason I could not work on my assignment without the beginnings of a panic attack was that my brain was trying to protect me from going through the intense feelings I suffered during my first panic attack.
So, to stop myself from panicking, I panicked.
I'm still trying to work that one out.
Most importantly, I learned coping mechanism to ease the panic. And while some work better than others at certain times, remembering all of them is important for me.
Use distractions to get rid of panic triggering thoughts. Read a book, watch a movie or TV show, go for a walk, talk to a friend. Do anything to keep the negative thoughts away.
Ask yourself what is the worst that could happen. So I don't turn in my assignment, what's the worst that could happen? I fail the class? That's not the end of the world. That's not even the end of my academic career. It's just a bump in the road.
Just breathe. Remember that your body knows what it's doing even if you can't remember how to get air in your lungs. Let it take over and breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
It's going to be ok.
My Mental Health is a Part of Me
It's been a year since I had my first panic attack.
A year full of ups and downs, professionally and personally. A year where I finally finished my assignment and turned it in (3 months after it was due). A year where I've learned to accept, if not embrace, my mental health.
The last 12 months have been tough.
I never really know when I will have a panic attack. I never know how the attacks will show up. I never know how I will deal with them.
I always know they're a possibility.
They're a part of me.
I've learned to cope with them for the most part. And they're not as bad as before. But the fear of having one will never leave me. And I do find myself avoiding a lot of situations that I know can trigger them.
It's a fact of my life. It's one of the reasons I am the person that I am.
So I will continue with my ups and downs. Pushing through the fear. Coping with the panic. And striving to be the best me I can be.
Panic attacks and all.