I don’t seem “anxious.” I’m an adrenaline junky, I’ve traveled to over 80 countries by myself, and I’m very go-with-the-flow. But like many mental illnesses, anxiety can be invisible.
There were no near-death experiences in my childhood — no trauma or hardships that would naturally manifest as an anxiety disorder in a little kid. In fact, I look back on my childhood and I can’t think of anything I would change.
I was a gymnastics- and soccer-loving 7-year-old daredevil the first time it happened.
We were watching a movie together. My mom, dad, older brother and I were cozy in the den when suddenly I couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone was squeezing the inside of my chest and not letting the air in. I started hyperventilating, shaking, and I had pins and needles from my mouth to the tips of my fingers.
My mom wrapped me in a blanket and sat me on the countertop while she phoned the doctor. He thought I was having an allergic reaction to ibuprofen.
I was having my first panic attack.
When I was officially diagnosed with panic disorder at 10 years old, my pediatrician compared it to a volcano. I rarely worry about anything, at least not consciously, which means that I worry subconsciously (and apparently that isn’t the ideal way of processing those feelings). The doctor explained that I push all my worry down, and down, and down until the pressure reaches a boiling point and it erupts into a panic attack. And that’s about the best explanation I’ve come across to this day.
Nearly 3 out of every 50 adults in the U.S. will experience a panic attack at some point during their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Around the world, that number could be as high as 13.2%.
It’s uncomfortable to talk about my panic disorder. But every time somebody reaches out to me looking for help, that makes going public worth it. The simple reassurance that someone else has been there can be a huge help to a person experiencing a panic attack for the first time.
Nowadays, I can go almost a year without having a panic attack. Or I can face multiple attacks per week.
The symptoms have stayed pretty consistent since I was 7. My heart (literally) skips a beat, I instantly gasp for breath, and I know what’s coming. I start wringing my hands together to try to maintain feeling in them for as long as possible. My mouth goes numb first, followed by the rest of my face, and then my hands and arms. Sometimes my abdominal muscles will tense up so badly that it feels like I’m ripping them to shreds when I try to move. Eventually, I’m hyperventilating, acutely aware of every sensation in my body and convinced that I’m dying. Or going permanently crazy. Or both.
When it gets really bad, I experience derealization and depersonalization. I’ll feel detached from both my body and my surroundings. It’s as if I’ve gone into a different dimension and I’m not viewing the same world that everyone around me is. Sounds aren’t quite right and movements are all wrong. It’s impossible to explain well, but it’s absolutely terrifying.
After 23 years of panic attacks, I can keep my cool for longer than I used to be able to. It’s just a panic attack, I tell myself. It always goes away in the end. And I can hold onto that awareness for quite a while if I focus on keeping my breathing slow and shallow ― hopefully, long enough that I can get myself to a safe place.
But inevitably, no matter how many times this has happened to me before, I lose all control over rational thought. No amount of Just calm down or Chill out can change that.
On top of the sheer panic that my body is shutting down, I’m also worried about those around me. I’m worried that strangers are judging me as a crazy and potentially dangerous person. I’m worried that the acquaintance I’m having lunch with is questioning why I’ve been in the bathroom for so long. I’m worried the guy I just started dating is going to see me as a basket case, whether I explain my panic disorder to him or he experiences it firsthand.
I can be doing nothing — lying on the beach, watching Netflix, driving down the street — and in an instant, everything changes. People always want to know, What happened?! What started it? What were you thinking about? The answer is nothing.
If someone around you has a panic attack, it’s not your fault and it’s not necessarily related to anything going on around you. For many people, panic attacks manifest completely out of the blue.
That being said, panic disorders vary from person to person. There are a few things I’ve come to realize for myself, however, that I hope can help you or a loved one cope better.
Taking deep breaths may actually worsen symptoms of a panic attack when you’re hyperventilating. Slowing your breathing is important, but try taking shallower breaths as well. Otherwise, you may exacerbate the symptoms of hyperventilation, which stem from expelling too much carbon dioxide. Research and try out different techniques like slow breathing and diaphragmatic breathing to find a technique that works for you.
Being upfront with others about my panic disorder helps, too. At the beginning, I didn’t realize how much the subconscious fear of having a panic attack around others affected me. But an invisible burden lifted off my shoulders when I slowly opened up to my best friends as a teenager.
Hey, this happens to me. It can be really scary to be around so I wanted to warn you that while I may tell you I’m dying, I’m not. A paper bag helps. So do loving reminders that this has happened before and it will stop soon.
It’s hard to talk about at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. Today, I’m probably overly open about it. When I know I’ll be spending a lot of time with a new person, I find a way to mention my panic disorder. That way, if an attack happens, I’m less stressed and they’re less concerned (and confused). I figure if talking about my struggles with mental health ever drives another human being away, they’re not the kind of person I want in my circle anyway.
Over 43 million adults in the United States experience some sort of mental illness every year, according to the NIMH. I’m far from alone. We’re all human and we want to relate to one another. We want to know there are other people who have felt grief, heartbreak, anxiety …
My panic disorder is not a secret, shameful part of me, and I don’t have to feel embarrassed, ashamed or terrified of people finding out about my mental illness. And that has done more for me than anything.