Before I start writing this blog post, I’d like to put it out there that a topic like this is quite personal and difficult to write about. But I realize how many people suffer from anxiety and panic attacks on a normal basis and spreading awareness about these types of mental health disorders is extremely high on my list of priorities. My drive to help others with these disorders is stronger than ever before. Throughout this post, I’m simply going to spill my heart and mind and provide as much knowledge as I possibly can. My greatest hope is that this post helps at least one person and helps people further understand anxiety from the perspective of someone who suffers from anxiety and panic disorder.
From as far back as I can remember, I have shown signs of anxiety. At the ripe old age of 7, I was hospitalized for a panic attack, though I was barely able to understand what was really happening to me. My grandmother drove me to the hospital for heart attack-like symptoms. I think she was more scared than I was.
Early experiences with anxiety
As a young girl up until I was about 14 years old, I could never sleep over friends’ houses and I’d end up having to call my parents at 3 in the morning to come pick me up. This was traumatizing to me – it kept me from staying anywhere overnight until I was a teenager. I always had trouble sleeping and I dreaded bedtime because I knew that I’d lay awake, restless for hours before finally falling asleep. I started deep breathing techniques before I even hit puberty and was on medication for nausea (due to anxiety I was unaware of) by age 12. My doctor thought I had too much acid in my stomach and put me on a drug called Omeprazole in hopes of reducing stomach discomfort. At restaurants, I’d often get nauseous and dizzy and have to run to the bathroom to catch my breath. Getting seated at a table near the bathrooms put my mind at ease.
My middle school years were some of the worst years of my life as anxiety consumed me. I experienced more moments where I was having an anxiety attack than moments that I felt “normal”. At the time, I did not know or even think that anxiety was the thing that was causing all this pain. I just thought that there was an issue with my stomach that caused it to be upset all the time, and I thought I was just worrying too much.
Now I look back at this and want to smack myself dead in the face. I was not suffering from everything I thought I had, like stomach ulcers, or acid reflux, and not everything I ate was making me nauseous. That was anxiety at its finest. In its sneakiest form, it had found a way to mess with my body and send my 12 year old adolescent brain on a search for answers. Throughout middle school, I found myself fidgeting in my seat in class, nausea at its peak, with tingling sensations running from my head to my feet. I felt like I was floating on air as I simultaneously had my butt planted in a chair. I went home “sick” multiple times from school, but when I got home, I was okay and didn’t even feel sick anymore.
Eventually, as time passed and I went through high school, my symptoms seemed to have subsided a bit. Either that is true, or my memory lacks any notable attacks or discomfort throughout my high school years. The lack of attacks could be due to finally establishing more of a sense of freedom – I finally got my license, got my first job – in my mind, I finally “had a life”. This freedom probably provided me an “out” of uncomfortable situations and honestly I was just really excited to be a free teen. I describe my senior year as one of the greatest highs in my life and I honestly don’t remember any anxiety-stricken moments, besides the few oral presentations I had to give (I always had trouble with public speaking).
Before I talk more, I want to define what anxiety really is. As defined by the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes such as increased blood pressure and increased heart rate.
Anxiety disorders as a whole include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.
Anxiety disorders differ from general, everyday anxiety you may experience due to work, school, or social events. Everyone has anxiety to a certain extent, but if you’re (un)lucky, you’ll be one of the 28% of people who will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in your lifetime. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in America. Of course, anxiety will affect us all at some point in our lives, but our individual thresholds for anxiety differ. If you tend to have a calm, collected, clear mind and body, you have a high threshold for anxiety. It probably takes a lot for you to become anxious, so consider yourself a lucky one. People with low thresholds for anxiety are affected very easily. People with anxiety disorders are most likely to have a low threshold, in other words, we have a very “sensitive alarm”.
Having an anxiety disorder is an awful feeling. It is uncontrollable and can hinder you in the worst situations possible. Individuals with anxiety disorders tend to overestimate the danger in situations they fear or avoid. Worrying too much is nearly impossible to avoid. Many anxiety disorders develop in childhood and tend to persist if not treated. Most occur more frequently in females than in males, about twice as much. Every person’s experience with anxiety is different, so being compassionate towards those with anxiety disorders (and anyone else, for that matter) is something I feel strongly about.
Extremely high levels of anxiety can induce a panic attack, which is a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fear, or terror that occurs without apparent cause. A panic attack is diagnosed based on the occurrence of at least four physical OR psychological symptoms, as outlined in the DSM-5 (a psychologist’s bible for diagnosing mental health disorders). Someone I look up to once described a panic attack in words much better than I could come up with. She said that a panic attack is “a sudden feeling of dread, the sudden urge to push your way through to the nearest exit, the whole room shrinking down around you and everybody staring at you and smothering you.” Your body releases adrenaline and there is nothing you can do to stop this. Your body goes into “flight or fight” mode, something our brain is programmed to do in a life or death situation. Normally, adrenaline is released when you are extremely excited, and situations like being on a roller-coaster, on a date with your crush, or in an emergency situation. For some stupid reason, adrenaline is released unexpectedly and for no apparent cause in people who suffer from panic attacks, leaving our bodies soaring like crazy. Often times, panic attacks come in waves. 5 minutes after you have one, you may feel another one coming on. And another one, and another one, and another after that…it’s a vicious cycle. The fear of having another panic attack increases the chance of having another one. It feels nearly impossible to get out of this cycle.
For me, classrooms, cafeterias, crowded restaurants, and even grocery stores seemed to be triggers. Everyone is triggered by different stimuli, and no one should ever feel invalid for whatever they fear. One thing that I want to stress is that I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want to fear going to my classes every single day. I don’t want to turn down dinner with a friend because I immediately start panicking when I step into a restaurant. I do not want to think “I just need to get through this hour long class without panicking”. Panic attacks are hard because sometimes people use this term casually when they “freak out” about something. Panicking is much different from simply “freaking out” about something. People take the term “panic attack” lightly and it’s hard to explain to people what it really is.
What does a panic attack feel like? A better question would be, what doesn’t it feel like? In the DSM-5, symptoms of a panic attack include:
- palpitations, pounding heart, and accelerated heart rate
- sweating (a LOT)
- trembling or shaking
- ringing in ears
- sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- feelings of choking
- nausea (sometimes diarrhea)
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- chills or heat sensations
- numbness or tingling sensations
- derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
How do you get over a panic attack?
For me, I have to go outside and get fresh air. If I can’t go outside, I’ll stand near a window and breathe in as much fresh air as I can. The need to go outside is so powerful and I have to leave the room I’m in. This works wonders. I also start deep breathing, especially if I can’t leave the room. I try to tell myself that I’m okay, I’m not going to throw up, pass out, or die. I try to rationalize my thoughts and move forward from there. Water also helps a lot – I always make sure to have a water bottle on me. Sometimes eating a snack is helpful too, so I know that I’m not feeling dizzy or lightheaded due to hunger, and I can attribute my dizziness to me just panicking.
Anxiety in College
To continue my story, in August 2015 I moved away to college and started my undergrad experience at Central Michigan University. Moving away from the city that I’ve called home for my whole life was absolutely terrifying. In the months that followed, I struggled with separation anxiety from home and from friends and family. I was so homesick, unhappy, and caught up in the chaos of college. Separation anxiety in my first few months at college was crippling. Once first semester was over, I was in a much better place, although symptoms of separation anxiety still persisted. My first year in college was battling this separation anxiety, but generalized feelings of anxiety weren’t too much of an issue yet. Of course, my mind was always anxious, but I didn’t experience real generalized physical and psychological symptoms much during freshman year.
This year, though, that all changed. Throughout the first semester of my sophomore year, I started to experience what I classified as anxiety attacks. Although these were not the most comfortable things, they weren’t horrible, yet still not the most fun experience. It seemed as if my anxiety peaked around 2 o’clock on cue on a lot of days, leaving me squirming in my seat in class. I told myself I just had to make it through the class and I’d be okay. These hindered me a little bit in the beginning of the semester.
Midway through October, for about a week, I was so, SO sick. I didn’t have the flu or mono or a head cold. My body was just sick, fatigued, not normal. There was no clear cause of this sickness and I couldn’t explain my symptoms to someone else without them being stumped. I had mini heart palpitations and lightheadedness – not as if I was going to faint, but my head felt clouded and heavy, and things felt as if they were moving a lot quicker than they actually were. I was literally shitting out everything I ate 30 minutes after I ate it (sorry TMI). You don’t realize how frustrating, inconvenient, and physically painful that is until you experience it for a week straight. I was hungry, but after I took one bite of food, suddenly food didn’t seem appetizing. I just didn’t feel like myself and I was starting to get frustrated. I went home for the weekend and had a sense of refreshment that helped me return to school, but I still continued to have minor moments of anxiety that were somewhat hindering.
Time passed, and soon it was the end of December. I was two weeks into winter break and I was loving every second of my time off school. Suddenly, only a few days after Christmas, I started experiencing weird, unexplainable physical symptoms. These symptoms were similar to what I had felt a few months back, but they were more intense and more hindering than before. I was nauseous and seemed to be so tired, yet so anxious at the same time. One night, I was feeling a bit nauseous and my head was a bit clouded, but I went to sleep in hopes of feeling better in the morning.
Unfortunately, I could not escape my own mind and my body apparently could not relax. I woke up at 4am, startled for no apparent reason, and I began to have a panic attack. I felt as if I was going to throw up any second and I rushed downstairs to get a glass of water and attempt to catch my breath. I needed fresh air immediately and began trying to calm myself down by breathing slowly and telling myself I was going to be okay. It took me at least 15 minutes to return to a somewhat normal state of relaxation and I laid back in my bed and watched YouTube videos until I could fall asleep again. I woke up around 10AM feeling so restless, still nauseous – honestly one of the weirdest feelings I have felt. The rest of that day I felt anxious for no reason and my body was just “off”. The following day, New Year’s Day, is a day I describe as one of the worst days I have ever had in my entire life – all because my body wasn’t functioning. That day, I experienced 15+ panic attacks and so desperately tried to understand why. At the end of the day, I broke down because I had no idea why this was happening to me, why now, and what was causing it. I sat up in my bed, burned a vanilla candle, put on mediation music, and started practicing deep breathing exercises. This was also the first time that I “officially” prayed to God, asking for guidance in this difficult and confusing time. I was instantly brought to tears while doing this, as I was tired, scared, and frustrated. The next several days were a stretch of confusion, emotional pain, and physical pain.
Figuring It All Out
Before I knew it, it was time to head back to Central Michigan to begin the new semester. I was anxious to go back up to school and start the semester when I couldn’t go a day without having a panic attack. I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t do mundane life tasks without getting extremely overwhelmed. At this point I was extremely fed up and absolutely exhausted. So I decided to do something about it. I went to my doctor and told her everything that I had been experiencing, my previous history with anxiety, and let her know how frustrated I was. She very quickly suggested medication for anti-anxiety. She prescribed me Prozac, which is an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) medication. Click here to see how Prozac works in the brain 🙂 In simple terms, the purpose of this drug is to increase the amount of a natural neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
My doctor also prescribed Xanax for emergency panic attacks, which frankly scared the hell out of me. I had heard many negative things about Xanax, how people misuse and abuse the drug, and how addictive it is. I was scared to take it because I didn’t know how it was going to work with my body. Nonetheless, I started taking Prozac regularly and refrained from using Xanax until I desperately needed it.
The first week back at school was easily one of the worst weeks I’ve had in my entire life. I stepped foot into my first class on Monday and an immediate panic attack came upon me. During it, I felt as if I only had half a lung working and body parts that weren’t functioning properly. I squirmed in my seat, my body burning up and profusely sweating, my skin turned blotchy and nausea came in full force. The feeling after a panic attack is relieving because the pain is finally over, but when it’s over, it feels as if you have literally just ran 5 miles. Once your heart rate returns to normal and your breathing is regular (aka when you finally catch your breath) a huge wave of exhaustion comes over you. All I did was go to one class, yet I felt like I was running on one hour of sleep and like I just ran a marathon. This exhaustion leaves me hindered in daily life as a college student. I have other classes to tend do, organizations to be a part of, and friends to see. This all seems nearly impossible when you have uncontrollable panic attacks, horrible physical discomfort, and constant exhaustion due to anxiety.
The next day, I had 3 classes and Lord knows I was terrified of having not one, but THREE classes that I could have a panic attack in. And indeed, I had one in every single class that day. After I started experiencing panic attacks, I started to avoid going places with a lot of people, places where my brain felt I couldn’t escape easily, or anxiety-inducing situations. This meant that going to the cafeteria for dinner suddenly became a trigger for me. I dreaded meals because I couldn’t eat anything, and even if I was hungry, my panic kept me from being able to eat. I didn’t drink coffee for a week, and for anyone that knows me, that is NOT NORMAL for me whatsoever. I inhale coffee on a daily basis and could actually write a book about how much coffee makes my life better. So not even wanting coffee was a huge red flag to me. Despite not even wanting it, I physically couldn’t drink coffee because my heart rate would spiral even more than it already was.
After dealing with so much discomfort and confusion, I called CMU’s counseling center and made an appointment as soon as I could. Later that day, after having multiple panic attacks, I broke down in tears and called my mom hysterically crying. I told her I had one of the worst days ever and that I just couldn’t function and I felt as if I was going crazy. Makeup smeared down my face and I was a mess on the inside and outside. I confided in her about my fear of taking Xanax, but she assured me that it was okay to try it – the doctor prescribed it to me for a reason – it is there to help me. So later that night, I put my pajamas on, took my makeup off, watched Barack Obama’s farewell address on my TV, and worked up the courage to take a Xanax. After about 30-40 minutes, I started to feel the effects of it. My body felt a little heavier than usual, but I was relaxed, I could think more clearly, and for once, I was hungry. I felt as if I could breathe again. This was great news. But it also terrified me because I did not want to rely on a highly addictive drug to feel normal. I finally got a good night’s sleep and stopped worrying for 2 seconds.
I went to my counseling appointment at 10 AM the next morning. We discussed symptoms, possible causes, and ways to improve. I made the mistake of going into counseling wanting answers. I wanted my therapist to tell me WHY this is happening and give me a clear cut answer on how to fix it. That is not a therapist’s job. A therapist’s job is to help their client find the answer themselves, to guide them in improvement, not solve the problem for their client. Nonetheless, even though I didn’t get an answer after the first session, I left the counseling center with a sense of optimism and hopefulness for the future.
Taking Steps Towards Improvement
Over the next few days, I implemented a new breathing technique into my daily routine. I did this in hopes of lowering my heart rate. I literally had to teach myself how to breathe correctly and deeply. The next few days were days of taking action, being patient, and having hope. In terms of taking action, I made steps in making my environments more comfortable for me. This meant me sitting closer to the door in my classes. This gave me an “out” if I needed to take a breather or if I felt a panic attack coming on. Just the simple fact that I was sitting closer to the door helped my brain and body calm down. It gives my brain the idea that there is an escape if I need one. I made sure to eat enough before classes and before events. Nourishing myself properly is another step in improvement that I needed to make in order for my body to feel better, despite me having no appetite. In the next week or so, improvement was slow, but I was feeling slightly better. The cafeteria still made me feel panicky and so did classrooms. All I knew was that I needed to stay patient with myself and my body.
I went to counseling the next week and my therapist and I determined what steps I had taken towards improvement and what to do next. At this point in time, I was still on the upswing of things. I decided to end my counseling time right there because I needed time to improve.
In the next week after that, my body was still not normal at all. I was eating a bit more, but I was definitely not back to normal. I went back to the doctor and collaboratively, my doctor and I decided to increase my dosage from 20M of Prozac to 40MG in hopes of reducing general anxiety symptoms and panic attacks during the day, and mostly at night. I was still experiencing some crappy symptoms, my breathing was not normal and I still felt nauseous at times. I’ve taken each day at a time, and slowly but surely have seen improvement. I’ve been on 40MG of Prozac for about a month and a half now and I definitely see positive effects of the drug on my body. Some days are better than others (as if you haven’t heard that before, but it’s true) and that’s something I always keep in mind. I’m a big believer in putting your mental health first and being selfish sometimes. You must take care of yourself first, no matter how hard that is.
I have spent the past four months battling severe crippling anxiety and the past 15 years battling some version of anxiety. I can say with confidence that these 4 months have been some of the hardest months I have ever lived through. I wouldn’t wish an anxiety disorder upon anyone, as I found myself praying to God that things got better. What I know is that every experience has a silver lining, and I’ve made it my goal to find one in the midst of fighting my anxiety.
Living with severe anxiety has made me even more passionate about my career path. I can’t go a day without exploring psychology databases and finding as much information I can on mental health disorders. I’ve added a Family Studies minor in addition to my Leadership minor and Psychology major. I’m taking courses that will prepare me for graduate school and I’ve clearly identified my passion for mental health disorders. I’m on the path to becoming a clinical mental health counselor and I’ve never felt so sure about something in my life. Every single day I find a new reason to love the journey that I’m on. I’ve joined two psychology student organizations on campus and have gotten involved in clinical psychology undergraduate research.
Central Michigan has so many opportunities for psychology majors and I have the opportunity get involved so early on in undergrad. My passion for the brain and understanding human behavior has never been stronger. I cannot be more grateful for all the opportunities and knowledge I have access to. So, I have to thank you, anxiety, for helping me discover what I want to do with my life and increasing my empathy for others. (Did I really just thank my anxiety?)
Where I’m at Now
I’ve been on Prozac for almost 4 months now and I am extremely lucky to have responded so well to it. I really saw a difference when my doctor increased my dosage from 20mg to 40mg. The positive effects of the drug definitely outweigh the negative; the negative being some restlessness and some bodily numbness at certain times. Prozac has also reduced some social anxiety in me that I didn’t even know I had. I feel very confident in myself, my head is finally clear and I feel as if I can think straight. I’m willing to speak up in class which I’ve never been good at doing. I reach out to my professors and new friends because I genuinely am not “scared” anymore. Prozac has been a true blessing.
If I let anxiety take control of my life, I would never be able to leave my bed. If there is one thing I know, it is that I will not let anxiety win. I will let it teach me more about my own body and learn compassion and empathy for others, but it will not hold me back from what I want to do in life.
What can others do to help people with anxiety and panic disorders?
Be understanding, listen, and be patient. Telling us to “not think about it” or to “stop panicking” does not help. Let the person take their time and give them the space they need. Be responsive to the person but do not make them feel like their feelings are invalid. Ask them what they need, but do not assume. Encourage them by saying things like “you’re doing a great job” and “I’m proud of you” and “take your time”. Never say things like “I don’t understand why you’re freaking out” or “stop being dramatic” or anything that could make the person feel worse.
Another thing to note is that people with anxiety do not look a certain way or act a certain way. Often times, people assume that people with anxiety are extreme introverts, never leave their room, and use drugs/alcohol to cope. Anxiety affects ALL types of people – there is not one type of person that it affects. I often hear “I would never guess you have anxiety” or “I had no idea that you were going through that”. Well yeah, it’s not something I’ll necessarily go around telling everyone. Anxiety can be compared to having a headache, no one knows unless you tell them. I also am a very happy person, I smile a lot, and I love making others happy. That isn’t fake at all. I genuinely am happy and me smiling is not covering up pain due to anxiety.
Anxiety sucks, but I’ve learned how to cope with it and control it to the best of my ability. All I can do is stay positive and take each day, or every hour at a time. I definitely am not ashamed about having anxiety; I’m writing this post for a reason – to spread awareness and to normalize talking about mental health disorders. Ending the stigma on mental health is SO extremely important to me.
What have I learned about myself?
I’ve learned more about myself in the past 4 months than I probably have ever learned in my life. I now understand that my body doesn’t respond well in high stress situations. I’ve learned to give myself extra time in the morning to ease into my day and keep my heart rate at a normal rate. I make sure to balance my caffeine intake so my heart rate doesn’t race and increase my chance of having a panic attack. I’ve identified the people in my life that ease my anxiety and I choose to surround myself with them. I know what types of situations make me most anxious and I’ve implemented my relaxation techniques in those environments to prevent future attacks. I’ve realized how incredible the people in my life are. They are so incredibility supportive and patient with me. They respect my need for space and take time to listen to me. I know I can lean on so many people in my life and that they’ll be by my side in a split second to support me. I’ve never been more blessed and I owe that to all the people in my life and God. Anxiety does not make me weak or fragile, it makes me human.
I truly believe that with education and activists, mental illness can soon become destigmatized as we become more aware of these mental health issues. I sincerely hope this post helped someone.
All my love,