What It’s Like to Live with Panic Attacks — and How I Cope

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Over 450 million people worldwide suffer from mental health disorders, yet 66% of them will never seek help. There are countless reasons for that. One of them, for those of us raised as Middle Eastern, is our culture’s approach to mental health.

In my experience, that conversation can basically be summed up in three words (or two in Arabic):

بلا دلع  – stop the drama

The discussion surrounding mental health is one that is usually avoided. Indeed, most prefer to stay in the shadows and avoid treatment as a result of the stigma around mental disorders. However, this is, more often than not, incredibly detrimental to the sufferer.

To make matters worse, in recent years the stigma around mental health has turned a serious disability into a trend, a funny meme, or an incorrect self-diagnosis, leaving no space for a real conversation on the topic and making it even more difficult for those suffering.

No, Becky. The kale in your salad isn’t giving you anxiety.

For all of those reasons and more, I’ve chosen to be outspoken about my experience. My hope is that, through conversation, we are able to destigmatize and encourage open discussions around mental health issues.

My Story

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) at the age of 19, with the additional diagnoses of depression and agoraphobia ten years later.

Pronounced ‘ag-uh-ruh-FOE-be-uh’, it’s a type of anxiety disorder where you fear and often avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless, or embarrassed. As a result, sufferers very often avoid leaving their house at all. In my case, I was homebound 90% of the time for over 14 months.

If you met me in person, however, you would never be able to guess that about me. And that’s partly the problem. Because I don’t “look” like I have mental health issues – coupled with the fact that I suffer from two of the most misunderstood disorders – the reaction of family and friends has often been thrown off.

As a teenager, I remember my emotions running high and thinking that everyone probably felt this scared all the time too. But I would eventually learn that, while most people will experience nervous or anxious episodes in their lives, living with long-term anxiety and depression is a completely different ball game.

Those suffering from GAD and depression tend to have a depletion of serotonin in their brain, which is both a neurotransmitter and a hormone. Serotonin is considered to be the happy hormone and thought to help regulate mood and social behavior. An imbalance in the brain, like an imbalance in any other part of the body, can lead to severe consequences.

Indeed, depleted serotonin can result in increased anxiety and panic attacks, tricking the brain into believing that you are in a high-threat situation that initiates a ‘fight or flight’ response. Unfortunately for me, that’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Insert Panic Attack 

Before I take you down the rabbit hole of my personal experience, it’s important to clarify that each person’s is both different and subjective. So while panic attacks do share common symptoms, each person’s experience will vary.

The common symptoms of a panic attack are often listed as the following:

  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
  • Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Having an increased heart rate
  • Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Feeling weak or tired
  • Having trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems

In my case, a panic attack happens instantaneously. The feeling of intense fear is triggered and my mind begins to race as paralyzing dread takes over. Insecurities, self-attacks, and a whole bunch of unrealistic conclusions join the party, clutching the reality of the current moment in their icky hands.

Did I say the wrong thing? Was my joke not funny? Was my laugh too loud? It must be that I am probably not even welcome here. Will I ever be good enough? Maybe I shouldn’t exist.

As the feeling of ever-impending doom creeps in, I’m sure more than ever that a panic attack is slithering its way to me yet again.

The best way to describe my experience is as a sensory overload. An overwhelming flood of emotions and thoughts takes over me. I am extremely and painfully aware of every sound, color, and movement that surrounds me, and it’s a difficult, painful experience to attempt to process it all at once. There’s just too much going on, even in a silent room.

Once the panic is officially induced, the effects can now be felt physically as well. My symptoms vary from blurry vision, difficulty breathing, and shooting pain across my body to trouble focusing on even the simplest task. Other common physical symptoms are nausea and vomiting, imbalanced bowl movement… must I go on?

As dramatic as it sounds, it’s also real. It happens often and severely impacts my quality of life. Living with anxiety isolated me from the friends I loved to see, the travel I dreamed off, and even a career path I worked hard for.

It was therefore crucial for me to try to find ways to cope.

Coping: A Tried and Tested Method

My first step all those years ago was to acknowledge the limitations of self-treatment and overcome the stigma I myself carried. I got professional help and began routine therapy sessions, which I have been proudly attending since March 2010.

Through all the years of therapy and a number of other alternative healing methods, I found a routine that helps me ease out of a panic attack.

1

Step 1: Remember that you are not dying.

Remind yourself that you have everything you need to get through this.

Whether you write it down on your hand, plaster it on the walls, post it all over your social pages – whatever it takes to remind yourself – remember that you are not really dying.

Whether it’s your first panic attack or your millionth one, it’s very important to remind yourself that it will pass!

2

Step 2: Breathe.

This might sound like basic advice, but trust me you are probably not breathing.

During a panic attack, you can begin to hyperventilate, causing lightheadedness, dizziness, chest pain, racing heart, and even numbness.

One of the best ways to reduce these symptoms is by learning different breathing techniques. You can find an endless stream of videos on YouTube or even take a yoga class to help you take back control of your breath.

3

Step 3: Bring your awareness to the present moment.

In my experience, if your mind and body have managed to convince themselves that you truly are at risk, they’ll be racing to figure out all the possible negative outcomes of a given situation in order to find an escape plan. The reality is that this is a false alarm and you need to get your mind back to the present moment!

My favorite trick is using physical senses, as this can be done anytime and anywhere to come back to the present moment.

For example, try honing in on and naming five different sounds. It could be the AC, the refrigerator humming, your own breathing, etc.

You could also try touching five different surfaces and focusing on how they feel, exposing yourself to different smells or tastes, or naming five different colors around you.

4

Step 4: Make contact with your ‘safe person’.

It may be scary to talk about your anxiety disorder or ask for help during a panic attack, but would you feel the same asking for help if you had a broken leg? No.

Whether you choose someone you know or a professional to be your safe person, it’s important to lean on those you trust during these times to provide clarity and comfort.

5

Turn on your feel-good playlist.

Create a special list of songs just for this moment. Choose the ones that you can’t help humming or singing along to and have this ready to go whenever you need it. The effects might take some time to kick in, so give the tunes a chance and allow the rhythm to unwind you.

6

Designate a feel-good smell.

The idea behind this trick is to reduce your anxiety through the use of a specific scent. Consider this a classical conditioning experiment.

First, find a neutral scent or perfume that you haven’t used before, which means it won’t be associated with any specific memories. This is essential. Next, apply the scent to your wrists and other spots such as your elbows and neck whenever you are feeling relaxed and happy. Repeat this over the course of a few weeks until you start to associate it with good memories or a good mood. In times of anxiety or panic, apply the scent and take a moment to absorb the smell. This should hopefully reduce your anxiety. The goal behind this is to create an association between your mind and positive moments through the scent, helping your body to relax.

Identifying ways to ease myself out of a panic attack has helped make the whole experience a lot smoother, allowing me to regain control time and time again. It took a while to find the things that worked best for me, so I would recommend trying out a few options and coming up with a list that works for you.