What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is an abrupt onset of intense fear and/or discomfort that can include at least four of the following symptoms: Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate, sweating, trembling or shaking, sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, feelings of choking, chest pain or discomfort, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint, chills or heat sensations, paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations), derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself), fear of losing control or “going crazy”, or a fear of dying. For me, panic attacks could come in any combination of the previous symptoms, and it would often be difficult to identify what was happening when my attacks were never the same. One day I could experience chest pain, heart palpitations, shaking, and feelings of choking. Another day I could experience paresthesia, lightheadedness, derealization, and nausea. Because there are so many symptoms of a panic attack, it can take some time to recognize it when it happens.
*Symptoms list comes from adaa.org.
What is Panic Disorder?
Panic Disorder is classified as a type of anxiety disorder, which involves experiencing persistent and often unanticipated panic attacks. There is often a common misconception that panic attacks only happen when there is an obvious stressor present (like when a person who has a fear of public speaking must address a crowd of people). While situations like this certainly can trigger panic attacks, there is not always a clear reason for why a person can be experiencing a panic attack. Those with panic disorder can experience attacks with no clear provocation, and that feeling of never knowing where the attack is coming from can lead to a constant fear of future attacks and sometimes even agoraphobia. This is exactly what I went through with panic disorder, often finding myself experiencing a panic attack with no obvious reason why it happened. Sometimes I could look back and recognize that there were stressors present that triggered the attack, but most of the time I wasn’t able to find any stressors present at all.
How was I diagnosed?
It took a long time for me to become diagnosed with panic disorder, as many of my attacks were sporadic and seemed to resemble seizures or some sort of hormone deficiency. I spent a lot of time visiting doctors, getting MRIs and EKGs, and getting blood work done to try and determine what was going on with my body physically. Through a series of doctors visits, and going both on and off medication for anxiety, I was eventually directed to a therapist by my primary care physician who believed it would be beneficial to determine whether or not my symptoms were based off of my mental health rather than my physical health. I was quite desperate for answers at this point in my life, as I had became so terrified of experiencing another attack that I felt it was no longer safe for me to leave the house. Since I had explored all of my other options, I decided to attend therapy as a last resort, and it was there that I was finally diagnosed with panic disorder and began seeking treatment. Being diagnosed with Panic Disorder was one of the most helpful things on my journey to recovery, as I began to realize that I had an opportunity to regain control over my body and my life by becoming involved in my own mental health.
Living in Recovery
My recovery process was slow in the beginning, as it took some time to gain the courage I needed in order to engage in behaviors that seemed to trigger attacks. I was also one of the only people in my family and friend groups who had been diagnosed with panic disorder, so trying to explain what I was going through while still actively trying to recover was difficult at first. I was still scared to leave the house and I still felt a lot of shame surrounding my mental illness when interacting with other people. However, between individual therapy and developing some strategies that allowed me to cope with panic disorder, I was able to begin accomplishing all of the things I felt I had lost before my recovery. I was able to begin working again, attend college again, and go to new places without worry or fear. Overtime I also felt less shame about what I had gone through, and was able to openly discuss my experience with people around me. Do I still experience panic attacks? Yes. Panic disorder is a part of my life, and I have accepted it as something that I need to constantly work with. Are panic attacks as devastating as they had been before my diagnosis? Absolutely not. While they can still cause me some distress or fear, I still have some control over my body through the use of my coping strategies. Some of my strategies include…
- Mindfulness exercises and Body Scans that help keep me in touch with how my body is feeling.
- Diaphragmatic breathing (breathing with your diaphragm rather than your upper chest) which helps reduce some of the symptoms of panic while they are occuring.
- Relaxation exercises that help train my muscles to relax even when they are tense.
- Being aware of how I am feeling, and recognizing my symptoms as a panic attack rather than something that could harm me. Keeping in mind that I am safe no matter how scary a panic attack can be.
- Having someone I trust available to talk to when I am experiencing panic (whether it’s a coworker, a professor, or a friend). Having a person like this around also helps as they can sometimes help manage concerned bystanders who may not know how to react.
- Reminding myself that having a panic attack isn’t a sign of weakness or something to feel ashamed of. I am both deserving and fully capable of living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life.
As difficult as Panic Disorder can be, I recognize now that overtime I gained a certain type of strength and resilience while learning to overcome the challenges I face with my illness. Something that used to feel terrifying and disabling is no longer able to keep me from what I want to do in life, and I have been able to use my experience to help others who have faced similar struggles. I am proud of what I have accomplished so far and I am a firm believer in the idea that if I can experience such a dramatic change through recovery, then it is possible for anyone.