Like many panic sufferers, I was in my early teens when I experienced my first panic attack. I can’t say that there was a triggering event, as I was lying in bed trying to go to sleep the first time it happened. I shared a room with my sister at the time. I was struck by a sudden fear of dying, my heart was racing, I was sweating and I was shaking like a leaf. “What is happening to me?” I went over to my sister’s bed and asked her to let me sleep with her. She offered me the bottom of the bed (nice sister!) and then complained I was shaking the bed too much. I rode it out, but it seemed that from that point on, I experienced them at night. At first, it wasn’t all that often, but as I got older, they got worse.
Fast forward to college, a very stressful time, indeed! Away from home for the first time and unhappy with my choice. I decided to switch to a new school, but during my second semester, began to experience more and more episodes of panic. One in particular was when I was studying for a biology test. In my dorm room, I suddenly felt just weak and weepy. I managed to get myself together and take the test (I passed!) but the panic and anxiety dogged me the rest of the semester. I managed to get through, just wanting desperately to go home.
That summer, I took a job at a personal care home, taking care of elderly people. An elderly lady died, literally, with me underneath her. Traumatic, yes. And to this day I cannot stand to be near dead people. This event just intensified my panic and anxiety. I was too embarrassed to go to my parents for help, irrationally thinking they’d put me in a mental institute or something worse! This time was pre-internet and there was no library nearby for me to research this problem I was having. So I stuck it out as best I could. I transferred to the new college and called my parents just a few days later crying and begging them to come get me. I found I could not go to class without having a major panic attack. There I was, stuck in a room with 35 other people, panicking the whole time. How could I finish school this way? I called a friend, crying, and she told me if I really felt I needed to be home, to buck up and call my parents. So I left school and lived at home for an entire year without a job. My parents knew something wasn’t right, but they never forced me to go to a doctor and by then, I just felt like I couldn’t talk to them about it. I felt like the worst human being alive, I didn’t have a job, I was worthless. I spiraled into depression. During this time, I became more agoraphobic. “What if I go somewhere and freak out?” It seemed the fear of panic was enough to cause a panic attack! I thought I hid my problem pretty well until a friend said, “Gosh, you afraid to leave the house or something?”
About a year later I left college, and after a year of hearing “get a job!” I finally did get one, working part-time at a retail store. It was hard at first, trying to put on a happy face while trying to stave off a panic attack. What can get more public than working at a store? I just worked my way through the panic using these methods:
1. Deep Breathing. Force yourself to breathe. Everyone tells you take a deep breath and calm down for everything else. It works for panic attacks too.
2. Mantra. For my panic, I always had an intense fear of dying, or felt like I was going to die. I had a mantra that I always told myself and it was, “Hey, did you die last time this happened? You didn’t? What makes you think you’re going to die this time? You aren’t!” I kept having that conversation with myself and eventually, with time, it did help.
3. Force yourself to confront your fears, in baby steps if you must. Are you agoraphobic, afraid to leave your house? Then start with a walking to the mailbox and back. Work your way up to the big things that scare you.
4. Distract yourself. Count backwards from 100. Do anything you can to get your mind off from your panic. Even if it is cleaning out the refrigerator.
5. Get a confidante. With the internet, you can find a support group for just about anything. For me, the first real time I discussed anxiety and panic disorder was with a friend I met on the internet. When you become introverted, you think no one else suffers like you do. It simply is not true. Many people suffer in silence when all they need to do is reach out for some help.
Regrets. We all have them. For me, it is that I wish I had had the courage to talk to my parents and seek help sooner. I may actually have been able to graduate college with treatment. As it is, I never went back. For a long time, I wasn’t even able to go on a college campus without associating panic with the event (remember the dorm room episode?) but eventually, I was able to go on to other people’s college campuses, but it was hard at first. I held that job in retail sales and met my husband a year or so after started that job. It was hard, it seemed that everyday I was fighting my panic, forcing myself to go to work to get through just another day. Eventually, over time, it got easier and easier to go to work and the panic subsided. Having a job boosted my self esteem and helped alleviate the depression that came along with the panic disorder.
Currently, my panic is manageable. I have not needed medication for a few months now. But if I feel myself slipping backward, I make an appointment with my doctor. Looking back at that awful period in my life where everyday was a nightmare to live, I refuse to ever go back there again. If I feel my anxiety is getting out of control, like if I can’t sleep at night because I am too anxious, I make an appointment with my doctor to discuss what is going on in my life and why I feel I need medication. I have found that being direct is the most effective. I have told my doctor that I needed an antidepressant and insisted on a prescription. You know your body best. No one else can truly understand unless they have been there themself. If you think you need medication, you probably do! I am no longer embarrassed by having depression or anxiety. It isn’t a Scarlet Letter. Your family won’t disown you. You will not be ostracized for seeking help when you need it. Be proactive in your care. No one wants to suffer needlessly, and one should have to suffer needlessly.