Panic attack – two words that filled me with absolute dread and overwhelming fear from when I was 15 years old until I reached my late teens. I want to share with you my experiences of panic attacks and how I overcame the debilitating effects the condition can have.
Having a panic attack at the age of fifteen was my first experience of mental health issues. I remember being sat in English class at school when suddenly it felt like everything was disappearing. A rush of sensations overwhelmed me causing me to feel completely detached from myself and the reality around me. It was an utterly terrifying experience which caused me to feel sure that I was losing control and going totally crazy.
As is instinctive when experiencing a panic attack, I rushed out of the classroom to try and escape the situation I was in. The initial intense feelings passed but due to the anxiety the experience created in me I was left feeling a strange distant sensation as though I was still somewhat detached from the reality of the world around me. I know now that this was a form of dissociative experience called derealisation – although at the time I was convinced that I was just going mad and losing my grip on reality.
Without having an understanding of what on earth was going on in my head, my anxiety levels rocketed and I spent every minute of every day desperately trying to make myself ‘better’ by analysing how I was feeling and trying to work out how to go back to feeling ‘normal’.
My focus was always on making sure that I never experienced a panic attack ever again as I felt sure that if I did I was going to lose my grip on reality completely and go mad beyond the point of no return. This led me into a spiral of anxiety in which I was constantly providing reassurance to myself in order to try and prevent myself from having another panic attack.
I would repeat phrases to myself over and over and over again like ‘you’re not going to have a panic attack, you’re fine’ and ‘I’m not going mad because I wouldn’t be worried about it if I was’. Even worse, I sought constant reassurance from my family & girlfriend by asking the same question on loop a million times – I will be okay, won’t I? I always received the same answer – Yes! Though it was never good enough for me and I still had panic attacks on a regular basis. Those close to me grew frustrated and I felt awful every time I asked that question again.
Trying to fight having a panic attack by hopelessly attempting to convince myself that it was never going to happen again was futile and the single biggest mistake I made when trying to overcome the condition. All I did was attach more and more fear to having a panic attack which just made me more and more desperate to avoid having one or, as happened more and more frequently, avoid putting myself in a situation where I felt I couldn’t easily ‘escape’ if it did happen.
I didn’t want to be at a party or another social occasion with lots of people, including close friends, who had no idea of how I was feeling. What if I went mad having a panic attack in front of everyone? Nobody could possibly know how I felt, they would judge me and everyone would disassociate themselves from me because of it. Besides, how could I possibly easily escape from a social situation to go home without things being awkward? What excuses could I conceivably think up to avoid telling people the truth?
I was utterly ashamed of how I was feeling and I firmly believed that nobody else could possibly understand. All I could do for years was put on a fake smile, repeat my phrases in my mind and struggle through each day trying to make it through without having a panic attack. At the end of every day I was relieved another day was over.
During this time I did try to seek help. I told my parents and girlfriend how I was feeling. I felt I had no choice as they knew something was wrong with me due to my drastic change in behaviour. I was generally a happy and relaxed teenager until I became withdrawn due to my condition. I went to my GP and was eventually referred to a counselling service. However, I felt nobody understood what was happening to me.
I tried to explain how I felt detached from the world around me and how I was having terrifying panic attacks but my GP could do little more than refer me on and the lack of mental health services available meant I was sent to a general counselling organisation for young people. They weren’t trained mental health workers and they had no idea how to deal with what I was telling them. My sessions were cut short and I continued to struggle through each day believing nobody had ever gone through what I was experiencing and that nobody could help me.
I tried hard to help myself by researching the symptoms I was feeling but I didn’t know where to start and it took me years to get a better understanding of the condition. The information I found on mental health websites talked about the symptoms of panic attacks as predominantly physical symptoms – a pounding heart, trouble breathing, sweating etc – but for me the symptoms weren’t physical.
For me, it was the intense feelings of losing touch with reality and I could find little discussion on the topic. I did not come across derealisation at all until much later. It seemed an obscure mental health condition that was talked about even less than the others. I was relieved when I had a name for my mental health disorders though. I finally felt a sense that I wasn’t alone in what I was experiencing and perhaps it could be overcome.
The trick to overcoming the all-consuming effect that panic attacks have over you is to accept that you may well have one. That seems absolutely ludicrous when you’re in the midst of struggling with panic attacks – it certainly did to me! Why on earth would I accept that I’m going to have a panic attack which, in my mind, could send me completely mad? I would fight at all costs to avoid having a panic attack so why was I just going to sit back and let it happen.
Knowledge really is power and the more I found out about panic attacks and derealisation the more I realised that I wasn’t going mad – I had a mental health disorder. This was still tough to get my head around and I still didn’t understand how I was going to overcome my condition and get my life back. The more I researched though the more I realised that panic attacks aren’t dangerous and that the intense feelings do pass over leaving you to carry on as before if you keep your cool. If you understand that then it becomes easier to begin accepting that you will have panic attacks but that this doesn’t matter.
That thought process disarms your condition because the fear which you previously attached to panic attacks slowly disappears to the point where you can go about your daily life absolutely normally with no anxiety about having one. You can go where you want and do what you want again without your condition limiting you. Who cares if you’re at a party and you have a panic attack? Yeah you’ll feel strange for a few moments but it will pass and you can continue as you were without it impacting on your day.
It took me a long while to get used to this new attitude to my panic attacks but over the years between my GCSEs and going to university the fear around having one slowly diminished – eventually to the point where I haven’t worried in the slightest about having a panic attack for about 5 years. That drop in anxiety allowed my experience of derealisation to fade away completely as well.
I want to get my experiences of panic attacks out there so that anyone who is having a tough time can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel with this condition. I hate to think that there is somebody out there in their early teens as scared and lost as I was with no understanding of what is happening to them.
It takes time to adjust your mind-set to panic attacks and, as frustrating as it is, you do have to be patient with yourself. You’re going to find it difficult to stop fighting having a panic attack and stop feeling afraid of something which has been terrifying you for a prolonged period of time. You have to be kind to yourself and try not to put yourself under too much pressure if you slip up and fall back into old habits.
As your attitude slowly changes you’ll find that you can push yourself into situations you never thought you could and achieve things you thought your condition made completely unachievable. Look at every small step you take forward as a positive. Look at every setback as something to learn from. Don’t let your panic attacks rule your life and do make decisions on what you want to do without considering how your condition will affect you – you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve and this will motivate you and reinforce that panic attacks no longer have a hold over you.
Above all, no matter how low or hopeless you feel now remember that you will come out of the other side to a better place. That hope for the future will drive you on as it did for me.