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4 Life Lessons My Panic Disorder Taught Me

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Let’s play a fun game: Have you ever pictured your own funeral? And I don’t mean in an abstract, melodramatic, “in the end I want them to play ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ – the Dylan version, of course“ way. I mean the gritty, uncut, realtime vision of your own death.

If you’ve ever experienced a full-blown panic attack, you might know what I’m talking about. The worst thing about panic attacks is not the sweaty palms, the racing heartbeat, the feeling you might collapse at any moment — those, I also get from a medium-intensity cardio workout. It’s your mind painting the worst possible scenarios, making you feel like you’re disconnecting from reality, telling you that you will DIE THIS VERY MOMENT. Capital letters, since the voice in your head is not exactly relaxed or polite.

I’ve experienced my very first panic attack in 2014, in Seattle. I was on a road trip with my friend. We’d been on the road for five days straight, sleep-deprived, hypoglycemic, walking around alone in the middle of afternoon rush hour and kind of lost. I stumbled into a small bakery, asked for a bagel and water and soon as I sat down at the table, I felt like fainting. My instinct was to lie down on the floor, which I eventually did, starting to cry hysterically. I felt so helpless and physically weak. The girls behind the counter got alarmed and asked if I was OK, if they should call an ambulance and, almost choking on tears, I said I might be having a panic attack. And then something amazing happened: one of them, her name was Alicia, laid down right next to me. “I’ll give you some company until the attack passes,” she said. She told me about her hometown, her family. She made me laugh. It is to this day one of the most moving memories of human kindness I have; I had “incredible stranger” luck in this moment, for sure. I calmed down, they gave me a cookie for my blood sugar and showed me the way to the bus station.

For some reason, this attack did not affect me in its aftermath, I could finish the trip without feelings of anxiety and also didn’t have reoccurring attacks in the months to after. Somehow, my brain must have managed to override the horrible feeling with the memory of another human giving me comfort in a moment of crisis. The second time, I didn’t have that much luck. I was traveling to my parents by train; it was my Dad’s birthday. I had just started a new job which was pretty demanding in the first few months and I was in the middle of moving to a new apartment, so my stress baseline had already been somewhat heightened. I caught the train after work on a cold April day, already a bit anxious because of the stress of the last few weeks. And, of course, the train was delayed by over an hour and of course the regional train I took for the last part of the journey was pulled out of service midway. So, while it was turning dark outside and snowing like a blizzard, trainload of passengers and I were crammed into a bus to take us to our destination. There was no air in the bus, people were stacked like clowns in a Volkswagen and I was exhausted, my blood sugar at its lowest. And then, my anxiety turned into a raging panic. My heart was racing and tumbling, I felt like I’d have a cardiac arrest at any moment, I couldn’t really breathe (because there was no fucking air in the bus) and I had three very grumpy, very unsympathetic people sitting around me, staring at me like I was “crazy” while I tried to fan myself with a folded magazine, mostly to keep from passing out. When I finally arrived at my parents’ place, I was drained of all energy; I felt beside myself, shaken to the marrow of my bones. I felt like I almost died.

Sadly, this was the triggering event for me. From that moment on, I felt uneasy riding trains, buses, cars — anything in motion with no option to get out. I used to love train rides and road trips, traveling, being far from home. Before, I’ve traveled about 3000 miles on the American and Canadian highway. I’ve studied abroad. I’ve flown around half the globe all by myself. From that point on, I dreaded every trip I had to make. My radius of living became small. My panic disorder affected almost every aspect of my life, since you don’t just have the attacks, you also have the constant worrying about the next attack, the fear of fear which so many patients experience. After almost a year of struggling, I finally went to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to work through my anxiety and panic. This does not mean I am “healed,” which is some peoples’ strange idea of how therapy works, but since then I’ve had very few panic attacks. The last full-fledged one was about a year ago (shoutout to the two very nice dudes who kept me company and talked me through it while all the other people on the train looked at me like I was weird). I also occasionally take a little prescribed “chill pill” before getting on a journey, because sometimes you don’t want to fight, you just want to be. And my panic disorder taught me some things about myself but also about life in general. So here are the lessons I’ve learned the very, very hard way.

1. Be kind to yourself.

No one chooses to have panic attacks. Like, no one chooses to have depression or cancer. You did not choose to have this disorder. Still, in our society, mental illnesses are deemed as something people bring upon themselves by doing X and Y and not doing Z. Sadly, it’s not that simple. Genetics, brain chemistry, trauma, social factors, and so on are not in your hand. All you are responsible for is taking care of yourself as well as you can and be patient with your progress. Having anxiety and/or panic attacks does also not mean you are weak. I’ve been in group therapy sessions where 6-foot-4-inch muscular guys with beards and neck tattoos talked about freaking out in crowded spaces — panic does not discriminate. And often, it hits those folks who have been brave and strong and relentless their whole life.

2. Maybe your panic is telling you something.

Speaking of relentlessness: panic often strikes first in phases of stress, especially emotional stress. I’ve noticed my panic tends to flare up in times where I’m unhappy or under a lot of pressure. To me, it is kind of a canary in the coal mine, telling me I might need to change some parameters in my life or, if that’s not possible, change my attitude to certain things. The feeling that something is not supposed to be like it is is a strong generator of anxiety and ultimately panic, which might be harking back to its evolutionary function: the “fight or flight” reflex. So, as unpleasant and frightening and goddamn unfair it is, maybe it is trying to nudge you into leaving circumstances in your life that are unhealthy (flight) or wrestle a bit with your expectations, your self-image and that nagging voice of self-doubt (fight).

3. Friends will be friends.

Besides being a good indicator of my own well-being, my panic disorder is also somewhat of a litmus test for friendship. If you are met with skeptical eyebrow raises, dismissal or questions like, “but I thought you are in therapy for this? (Isn’t it supposed to, like, vanish into thin air then?” when you keep on experiencing attacks, they might not be the type of friend you want to discuss serious personal topics with any longer. It’s not important that the people in your life have experienced panic firsthand to understand you. It’s important they listen and care, support you, forgive you if your panic keeps you from doing certain things, but also sometimes challenge you to face your fears head-on, and are always patient if you need more time or assistance to do so. And that they champion you for fighting, no matter how slow the progress is. Luckily, I have a bunch of people like this in my life and I’m incredibly thankful for that. However, if you lack a support group of friends and family, look for self-help groups in your area, get engaged in online forums, maybe join a meditation class (most people who turn to meditation do so for a reason; you might meet some like-minded spirits there). Try to find your people – digital or IRL – to help guide you through this.

4. Don’t give a fuck about what people think.

Being in a state of panic is not a “normal” feeling, so why try to react “normally” to it? For me, lying down somehow eases the physical symptoms as it relaxes my back and chest muscles. I’ve spread out over train seats and floors a couple of times. As you can imagine, a lot of people get irritated by this, reactions ranging from side-eye to flat out hostility for occupying seats. Sorry, I’d gladly swap this for standing the whole trip, trust me. There are few people out there who would do what Alicia did for me back at the bakery. We live in a society that is so painfully based on non-interaction and order that every disruption is almost scandalous. So if you want to look at it from a philosophical side, panic patients (just as all folks struggling with any disorder or disability that comes with “unusual” behavioral patterns) are like the ripple on the surface — reminders that we are, in fact, all human, we are all experiencing fear, pain, sadness or whatever and sometimes just can’t keep up the facade. So, while you’re down there staring at the ceiling or breathing into a paper bag or squeezing the hell out of your talisman, just remember you are maybe the most “normal” person in a totally freakish world.

Photo by Craig Adderley from Pexels

Originally published: August 14, 2019
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