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The Horrifying Physicality of Panic Disorder

I am writing because my therapist told me writing will level my mind. I know I cannot survive without writing what I experience. It is how I make sense of the extremes of human spectrum, and it is how I make sense of the nuances of sadness and joy that make up each normal day. When I was younger, I recognized and delighted in others’ cathartic work. Literature has molded me into the empathetic, sentimental, and analytical woman I have become. 

There are words I stored within the boundary of my skin that I must let out. I tangibly feel their weight. They gather in my chest and leave no room for my lungs to take in a full breath. They migrate to my throat and greedily push out any food that tries to travel to my abdomen. I wish these examples were metaphorical and not literal, but I truly believe when these words are no longer captive in my body, I will feel health in the words’ absence.

I am angry at my body.

Today is one more day in an exhausting line of days that my body is working against me. Upon opening my eyes in the morning, I am allowed two or three breathes before sharp pains occupy my stomach. Rolling to my side, I feel a deep ache run from my stomach down my leg. I hold my stomach, hoping I can placate it with a familiar touch. The pain is so real, so visceral, and so nauseating. I wonder what could possibly make me feel like this every single morning for the past two weeks. While holding my stomach, my fingers move to my sides in a self-hug. My hands make note of my bones that were previously protected with more flesh.

As I pull myself into getting ready for the day, my throat constricts. The back of my throat becomes metallic and unwelcoming at the thought of food, although I am so hungry. Aware of the tension in my throat, my hands, without thought, run down my ribs to my hipbones, as if to check that everything is in place. Why can I not eat? Why is my body denying me its most basic need?

Shedding more weight terrifies me, and the thought of it gives my stomach a new reason to violently turn. I pick a dry bagel apart, one small piece at a time. I cry because I so desperately want to wake up with thankfulness. Morning is my favorite time of day. Nothing makes me feel as wholehearted and hopeful as morning light greeting a room. I dread mornings. I dread how I feel after I take my first two safe breaths. I dread feeling my sharp bones and knowing I cannot eat, no matter how small the piece of dry bagel is in my hands. I hate not knowing how many mornings it will take for my body to stop producing flu-like symptoms. I hate the reasons and narratives my mind creates, trying to make sense of what it is doing to me. I wish my body would stop taking orders from my mind.

I am seven months into a panic disorder. My body can do nothing else to surprise me (this is not a challenge). I still feel fearful thinking about the first time I experienced a panic attack. I was sitting in my History of the English Language class and letting my mind drift to what kind of embroidery thread I wanted to buy at Hobby Lobby after class — potentially the least stressful topic I could have been thinking about. I suddenly realized I could not breathe. I adjusted my posture in attempt to let more air in my lungs, but my breaths were small and shallow. My heart rate skyrocketed and escalated into chest and arm pain all over my left side. I called my doctor’s office and they advised me to visit the ER since my symptoms were similar to heart attack. I decided to try Emergicare since the copay is less expensive. The episode was slowly escalating and I felt like I was losing my grip on reality.

You’re going to die. You’re going to die. You are dying right now.

I couldn’t control my thoughts and felt electric shocks run up and down the left side of my back and head as I stood in line to check in. The blood drained from my head as my heart started skipping beats. I walked past everyone in line in front of me and told the receptionist I needed an ambulance immediately. The poor woman bolted up and shouted for back up. I slumped against the counter, unable to hold myself up under the pressure of the episode. They placed me in a wheel chair and took my vitals right there in the lobby. Everything was normal. They wheeled me back to a private room and began an EKG, which also had normal results. My mind was still telling me  this was the day I was going to die. My heart was still pounding with unbearable speed.

They transferred me to the emergency room where they could complete more tests. An x-ray, blood work, and two more EKG’s revealed I am a healthy young woman. I was despondent to hear I was in good health.

How can I rest when I felt such fear for my life? How could I go to work the next day when I felt I must have an undetected cardiac or neurological problem causing these terrifying symptoms?

I skipped work the next day to see my primary doctor, who was the least helpful person on the planet to me. She told me to maybe skip the extra cup of coffee next time. As if I went to the emergency room because I didn’t realize I had too much caffeine. I was offended, confused, and scared I could experience these sensations again at any moment without understanding what caused them.

woman standing in an empty field

After a few months, the chest pain finally subsided and I felt comfortable to continue my life normally. The day before Valentine’s Day I experienced another attack as powerful as the first. This time I was working and not only felt unable to breathe, but the left side of my face also alternated between tingling and feeling numb. I felt the shocks and chills return to their runway on my spine and felt as though I could pass out at any moment. I couldn’t feel my left arm, and reality was a dissociated blur. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was. I wasn’t sure of anything except how terrified I was and how horrible I felt. I made a doctor appointment for their soonest available opening. The family doctor I saw was just as unhelpful as the first. She told me that my episodes seemed to be getting better and to come in again if they got worse. I felt helpless and that my health was out of my control.

Over the next month I experienced panic attacks almost every day, sometimes for up to six hours. It took nearly four months to find someone who could confidently tell me my mind is the cause. I have spent thousands of dollars in medical help, simply seeking answers for why I was experiencing stroke and heart attack symptoms. I’ve been to the ER twice, Emergicare twice, and my primary care doctor more times than I can count. I’ve seen cardiologists, neurologists, and a woman who tried talking to my central nervous system. When I mentioned to my cardiologist that I had been researching panic attacks he just looked at me unblinking and said, “You don’t seem like a panicked person.” That was the end of our discussion, and he diagnosed me with occipital lobe migraines. After enduring a 24-hour EKG machine strapped to my body, they decided my symptoms are not cardiac based. I begged my primary care doctor to refer me to a neurologist, but she refused to acknowledge my tingling face, numb limbs, and dissociation as a neurological condition.

When I was at my lowest point, I threatened to hurt myself. Living with these symptoms was unbearable. I was too lightheaded, dizzy, nauseas and afraid to go to work or function. My father had the idea for me to see a psychiatrist to help me get a referral to a neurologist. When I saw the psychiatrist he had me fill out a chart with panic attack symptoms. I had almost every single symptom circled on the chart, which determined the cause of the terrifying reality that I had been living in. It was a relief to finally know I wasn’t dying, but it also took me a long time to accept that my mind could turn against me and cause such horrifying physical sensations.

The physicality of panic disorder should never be undermined. I would not describe myself as an anxious person, but the anxiety lives in my body. It courses through my central nervous system and wreaks havoc on the way I function daily. My mind confuses food with poison and a social gathering with a battlefield.

Through working with a great hypnotherapist I have been able to calm my subconscious and convince it to work normally on most days. In fact, after my first hypnotherapy session the most terrifying physical symptoms were alleviated. Now my body cycles through different debilitating physical symptoms I must relearn again and again are anxiety driven. The most recent stunt my body is pulling is being sick in the morning and rejecting food. It is still hard for me to believe my mind can cause my body to seem like a separate entity from myself. I am constantly trying to communicate with my body, asking it what it is trying to tell me by rejecting food or cutting off air from my lungs.

I have been angry and hateful towards my body because I oftentimes don’t understand it, but this disorder is teaching me I must be kind to myself before healing. Healing is not possible when I feel angry towards my body. I could write hundreds of pages on what my body has been teaching me about my past traumas and wounds. Self-aware to a fault, I believed I understood every trauma coded in my wiring.

I encourage everyone with a mental illness, or not, to pay attention to the way their bodies communicate. The physicality of my panic disorder has completely rearranged my life, but it is leading me to a becoming a new, healthier self. I would also encourage everyone with an anxiety disorder to never believe they are a burden. It is so healing to be open with loved ones and give them the opportunity to accept you the way you are. If you are struggling with a panic disorder or anxiety disorder of sorts, you may have a huge important story inside of you that wants to be released.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255