Coping with Anxiety and Panic
I will never forget my first panic attack, nor did I know when I was having it that this horribly uncomfortable feeling would become a part of my daily life. I was eighteen and was ecstatic over having been cast in the lead role of Dancing at Lughnasa my senior year. On the third and final night of the play, just as the curtains lifted and I was about to speak, for some reason a person decided to bang violently on the metal doors in the back of the theater causing a thundering distraction. A sensation rushed over me that was indescribable as I tried to tell the rest of the cast what was happening to me, as it had never happened to me before that moment. My initial thought was that I was about to faint. I felt dizzy, hot, and struggled to feel as though I could take a full breath; in addition, I could not help but notice my fiercely pounding heart, sweating palms, and knees which had begun to shake violently. Though I spoke my lines, the feeling of being detached or not in control my own body was so intense that while I remember the sensation and the fear of the moment, I remember very little of actual the nightmarish two-hour performance, which I will never understand how I managed to get through.
After the initial attack, I started to worry that it would happen to me again when I was in enclosed spaces, such as the classroom. I had read a suggestion that when struggling with anxiety one should snap a rubber band on their wrist, with the idea being that the physical pain would jolt the person back into “reality” and out of their anxious thought patterns. Unfortunately, I would not recommend this method to anyone struggling with a panic disorder; the adrenaline that accompanies a panic attack raises one’s tolerance for pain. I figured out after realizing that while trying to cope through my high school graduation ceremony, as I decided to cause myself to have a physical reaction by digging my fingernails into back of my neck (I thought this would look more normal and hoped others would simply think I was rubbing it out of soreness or boredom). Instead I had inadvertently scrapped skin of nearly the entirety of the back of my neck to the point that I had drawn blood which was apparent upon a cursory glance at my fingernails, which I then tried to keep out of the sight of my friends and family.
I continued to become more and more afraid that I would have an attack in public and began to minimize my interactions with the social world, first eliminating the grocery store and replacing it with a smaller alternative like Walgreens, then continued to add to my “Do Not Go” list, avoiding malls, airports, movie theaters, concert venues, formal restaurants, highways and classrooms, until eventually I realized that I only felt comfortable in my house and was dependant on the gas station to provide me with grocery-like items. At my most challenging stage of battling anxiety, I was twenty-five and watching my friends around me excel in school, their careers, and relationships, while I had digressed to stealing food from my mom’s cabinet for sustenance and started avoided all eye-contact with strangers because I felt as though the muscles in my neck couldn’t hold up my head or may cause me to twitch (I should add that not once did my head ever fall or did I actually twitch, it was fear of fear that was debilitating). Most regrettably, I no longer felt secure in my home because I had become inundated with thoughts that I may have a heart attack or stroke and there would be no one around to save me, resulting from concentrating on this fear so intently, it would result in the manifestation symptoms similar to those conditions, including tingling in my arm or pain in my chest.
I am divulging how desperate and pathetic I felt at these very low-points in my life because attribute a great deal of my recovery to authors who recounted their battle with anxiety, such as Paula Deen. When I read their stories of hardship and triumph, I began to realize that I was not alone in this battle and that others had overcome the difficulties of having a panic disorder. I want others who are feeling lost or hopeless to know that I empathize with their struggle and that no matter how far one has progressed in allowing panic to rule their life, he or she is not condemned to a life of solitude and fear. Anyone who has experienced a life of being ridden with anxiety should expect what I am about to say next: There is no quick fix to treating an anxiety disorder and it is going to take patience and will-power. I’m sorry to say that even now, at the age of thirty, that there are still many times in a week, or sometimes even a day, when I have to pay attention to regulating my thoughts and breathing to prevent myself from panicking; but the good news is that I feel this way because I am out of my house. Because I am living my life. Because I have a life again, which I feel grateful for every day.
I would like to offer some advice as to the techniques that have helped me in reclaiming my life:
- FIRST- Be Easy on Yourself!
This is so essential and was probably the most difficult part for me. I constantly had thoughts such as: “I wish I was normal.”, “I bet I look weird.”, and “Why can’t I just do the things that everybody else does?” While these are completely normal thoughts, they do not promote self-esteem, which in my experience is typically a problem among most people who suffer from extreme anxiety. It is crucial that one begins by believing that they ARE normal, but that they are just having escalated reactions to situations. Cut out negative self-talk. On top of it being inimical to conquering anxiety, your friends and family do not want to listen to you whine and put yourself down; they love you, would you want someone you loved doing that to themselves?
- Get Informed
Reading others stories and general information about anxiety was really helpful to me in so many ways. One of the most helpful things I ever read pertaining to anxiety was in Lucinda Bassett’s From Panic to Power; in the text the author emphasizes that while the symptoms of a panic attack feel very real and at times feel potentially fatal, however, they are NOT. These feelings are disturbing, uncomfortable, and a genuinely frightening sensation but you do not need to worry that you are going to die and it is that very worry that promotes the circular pattern of fear that causes the problem. Through gaining information about the causes of the disorder you can find information that you may find personally comforting pertaining to panic.
- Challenge Yourself
This is most definitely the most important step towards combating a panic disorder; while it is important that you set goals for yourself that force you to leave your comfort zone please don’t set yourself up for failure by attempting to overcome too large of an obstacle, as it will only discourage you from trying the activity again in the future. How small should you start? Well, it depends on the level to which anxiety has already affected your life. If you never had anxiety but recently were in a car accident and you now find yourself taking residential streets because you are nervous to get back on the highway, make a goal to drive on the highway at a time with minimal traffic and only for a short distance. If your panic has become more severe, as mine was, the first step may be as small as walking out to the mailbox or around the block.
- Congratulate Yourself
Don’t take away from the wonderment of your accomplishment, regardless of how trivial it may seem! Tell yourself that you are proud that you went the store. Celebrate the small triumphs and you will eventually be praising yourself for larger accomplishments. I most recently had to remind myself that I was a rock star for dedicating myself to a trip to Hawaii and making it there and back without having to drink alcohol to calm myself down enough to get on the airplane.
There are a number of other options to pursue that have proven to be very helpful when tackling an anxiety disorder including but not limited to therapy, acupuncture, medication, and meditation/breathing exercises. No matter what path you take, what is most important is that you are taking a step to be diligent in combating your anxiety, while also accepting your limitations and beginning to love yourself again.