I first had a full-blown panic attack when I was 22. I was sitting in a Political Science class at Simon Fraser University, my alma mater, when I felt a rush of adrenaline pass over me like I’d never felt before in my life. I was 95% sure I was dying.
What seems most interesting to me now is how I reacted to this feeling of impending doom: I just sat there.
I waited until we had a break and then immediately fled campus to the comfort of my bedroom. I was shaking, my heart was racing, palms sweaty, mouth dry – and mostly, I was afraid. Afraid of not only my symptoms, but mostly because I had no clue what the hell was happening.
For 3 months I dealt with the aftermath of this event. I would have similar, mini-panic attacks in each lecture I attended for the next quarter, not knowing what was causing them or how to help myself. I would spend the majority of my waking hours fearing the return of my symptoms, which was altogether worse than the actual panic attack itself. After 3 months of torment, I still had no clue what I was dealing with. My best guess was a brain tumor.
Of course I’d Googled my symptoms, but it took me a surprisingly long time to land on a website that allowed me to understand what was going on. The day I first hit the Wikipedia page for ‘Panic Disorder’ was honestly one of the best of my life. Certainly one of the most relieving. What I’d learned about panic attacks on TV had distorted my knowledge of the condition, and so I had never considered that panic attacks were the culprit. I was sure that panic attacks were only for hormonal teenage girls, reacting to stage fright or breaking up with a boyfriend. Turns out, I was wrong. Panic attacks are for anyone.
As I went through the signs and symptoms (rapid heartbeat, perspiration, dizziness, shortness of breath, trembling, chills or hot flashes, a sensation of choking, and most importantly: the fear of impending doom) I ticked them all off. I had experienced each and every one of these symptoms during my episodes, lasting about 10 minutes and then proceeding to linger with me for the weeks to come.
It was after reading the Wikipedia page for panic disorder that the problem solving part of my personality kicked into full force. I’d felt so hopeless before my self-diagnosis, without any idea where to even begin fixing my problem. Now that I knew what the problem was (and after speaking to a health professional who concurred with my diagnosis), I was fixated on finding a solution.
“Named must your fear be before banish it you shall.” -Yoda
And so began my exploration into panic.
Here’s what I’ve learned over the past 6 years. If it helps one person who’s struggling with panic attacks, I’ll consider this article a success.
1. It won’t last forever
Reading this was a huge weight off of my shoulders. Panic disorder often develops in teenagers and young-adults, but it doesn’t stick around forever. There are many forms of treatment (see #5 below) including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Many studies show that 85-90 percent of panic disorder patients treated with CBT recover completely within 12 weeks. Pretty good numbers.
2. You’re not alone
When I had my first panic attack, I thought that I was definitely the first person to ever experience such an event. Obviously I was wrong. In fact, the odds are that someone else in my lecture hall was likely suffering from panic disorder as well – as one in 75 people experience the condition.
Don’t beat yourself up, and don’t deal with panic disorder alone. Talk to people. I was shocked to find that when I started telling friends and family about my episodes, many of them would open up about their own mental health challenges. Whenever I’d ask them why they’d never told me about their struggles beforehand, one common theme kept coming up: ‘stigma’.
Fuck stigma. There’s no shame in admitting that something is wrong. Talk about it.
3. You need to take care of yourself
The #1 cause of panic attacks is stress. While I wasn’t personally experiencing heavy stress at the time of my first attack, I was abusing the #2, #3, and #4 causes: alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
When I say abusing, I don’t necessarily mean doing anything worse than what an average 22-year old would consider, but the point is that I was clearly susceptible to panic attacks, and these substances weren’t making things better. I quickly realized that I was way more likely to have an episode on days following heavy drinking – a constant reminder for me to take it easy and not tie one more on at the end of the night.
Also, be sure to participate in regular exercise and get lots of sleep. Keeping drowsiness away contributes to a healthy mind, as does a little sweat.
4. There are tons of great resources
For the love of God, if you’re suffering from panic disorder: start reading. There are so many great resources at your fingertips. Search the web, browse YouTube videos, use the subreddits r/panicparty and r/anxiety, and read literature on the subject (I’ll list a few books I recommend below).
The thing that has helped me subdue my attacks more than anything outside of constant reading about them, is meditation. Of course, meditation is something I learned about while studying up on panic attacks – so maybe it falls under the same category.
Regardless, meditation has taught me how to tackle thoughts that could lead to panic attacks before they fester, giving me the power to choose to avoid panic. That’s right, I said choose. If you practice enough and really devote yourself to meditation, you can become much more selective with your thoughts. Sometimes, it feels like a super power.
If you’ve never meditated before, here’s my 5 minute quick-start guide. I also highly recommend spending a couple of dollars and investing in the Clam App. It’s full of guided meditations that will help you get into the swing of things. You can read more about my thoughts on the Calm App here.
5. There’s help if you need it
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Make an appointment with your doctor and tell him/her how you’re feeling. Discuss your options – whether you end up with a prescription, seeing a therapist, or trying CBT, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’re striving to make yourself a better person – what’s better than that?
Feel free to leave a comment below or message me on Twitter if you have any questions about my experiences, want some advice from someone who’s been there, or just need a sounding board. I’m happy to help.
Books that helped me: