What the Journey Through Panic Disorder Feels Like
I still don’t understand how all the panic attacks started. I had some sort of mental breakdown a year and a half ago. The “breakdown” was an intense dissociative episode where I flipped to another personality for a while. After I came back to myself, the panic attacks started.
I’d had panic attacks before, but these panic attacks were different. Now the panic was always triggered by the same type of thing: a crowded place, loud noises, bright colors, perceived chaos.
It seemed like a sensory processing problem. I was constantly overwhelmed by noise, people and crowded spaces.
Clashing colors and disorganized spaces became painful to my eyes. Multiple sounds at the same time became excruciating to my ears. As I entered a building, my eyes searched for all the exits. I was always looking for an open space and an escape route.
Suddenly, I found myself unable to go to a store, restaurant, concert, sporting event, church or even a crowded park without a panic attack.
My life quickly circled around the panic attacks. I was constantly strategizing how to prevent them or cope with them. I analyzed my triggers. I felt afraid all the time. I played mind games with myself. Is it better to plan ahead for the panic attack? Or is it better to avoid thinking about it? When I feared I would have a panic attack, I usually did.
My coping skills very gradually began to work a little, but by that time, the panic attacks had changed my life.
I developed many associations of places with panic attacks. I would walk into a store and remember the panic attack I had in a checkout line, when I fought the panic by intensely watching the cashier fold shirts. I would go to church and see my former self sitting in different pews, and remember the fear as each panic attack hit and I slipped out.
My mind became filled with memories of panic attacks, fears of more panic attacks, and endless strategizing on how to beat the panic attacks.
I tried so many techniques. I polled people online who have sensory problems, and followed their tips. I tried systematic desensitization. I tried thought exercises. I tried affirmations and empowering self-talk. I tried visualization. I tried narrative therapy. Nothing seemed to work.
My psychologist said he was unable to help me with the panic attacks because every time he started to mention them, I would go into a panic. I had several panic attacks in his office. I was unable to calm my mind down to talk to him about the panic. I told him, “When I speak about the panic directly, it’s like looking into the sun. It’s more than I can handle.”
My world kept changing. I hadn’t seen my friends in months since I couldn’t go places. I was unable to enjoy most of my hobbies. I used to love going to baseball games and concerts, but those had both become impossible.
I felt like I had lost myself.
I felt like a shadow of the person I used to be.
I was now a person who was just hanging on by a thread, trying to survive the attacks.
I started having these things I call “anxiety waves” where I would have strange physical anxiety symptoms for hours at a time. During the worst ones, my body would be twitching or convulsing.
Before this experience, I never understood agoraphobia. I didn’t understand how someone could be unable to leave their house. But then I realized I was developing agoraphobia.
For a while, I kept fighting the panic. For a while, I kept forcing myself to go places, despite the attacks.
But I became more and more tired of the fight. I was simply worn out. I didn’t have the psychic energy for strategizing. I just wanted to rest. Panic attacks are physically and mentally exhausting, and this had been going on for months.
So I withdrew more and more. I was no longer the smiling, interesting person with many hobbies and an eclectic group of friends. I became a quiet, tired person who spent her time resting in a recliner, watching reruns of sitcoms. I became someone who jumped at every noise and shouted at her husband when he startled her. I became rigid and scared. I didn’t like my new self.
Gradually, through my coping skills and self-care strategies, things began to get better. It has been a very slow process.
It’s now been a year and a half since the panic attacks started. I still have panic attacks at least once a week. Every day is still hard. But I am able to work part-time, attend graduate school for counseling, and counsel clients in our college center.
Throughout this time of panic attacks, I have been able to work and attend class. Still, when I get home from my obligations, I collapse.
I am gradually recovering. Over the weekend I did a photo shoot in the city, went out to dinner with my husband and a concert at a winery, and went on a hike and birding trip. Several of those things caused me anxiety. But I pushed through it.
I can go to stores and restaurants now. I can sometimes make it through church. I don’t feel as trapped in my house as I used to.
Still, I often think of the person I was before these attacks started. I miss her terribly. I wonder if I will be her again.
Whenever I have these thoughts, I grit my teeth and tell myself: It will get better. It has to get better.
I repeat those words like a mantra. I believe my world will grow again.
This post originally appeared on PsychCentral.
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