Letter to a pre-panic disorder self

It’s understandable to avoid what scares you. It’s easy to shy away from an unsettling thought, to say you’d rather not talk about it.

For me, that sensitive topic is panic disorder. Thinking about the “P word” has a tendency to make my stomach curl and hold my breath hostage.

Fear. Panic. The body responds the only way it knows how, by tensing, freezing, pumping full of chemicals that prepare us to fight. We wait for the blow, but it never comes. Our bodies stand ready.

With panic disorder, the fight isn’t what our body thinks it is. The fight is within us, in our brain where memories and emotions live.

The fight to overcome panic disorder can feel insurmountable. At times, it feels like the fear is hidden just below the surface, waiting for an opportune time to visit.

For this reason, it is hard to talk about panic attacks. It’s much easier to pretend they don’t exist. We need to open up the discussion, though. Maybe then, panic won’t seem so scary.

What is a panic attack?

In essence, a panic attack is fear distilled into its purest form.

I had my first panic attack in college.

The first time a person has a panic attack, they have no idea what is happening. It’s terrifying. Unfortunately, that fear never goes away, but you get used to it. You get used to understanding the fear is not real. You get used to having to convince yourself to step out of your head.

I learned to live with panic disorder. Here’s what I learned through the experience and what I wish I had known before my first panic attack.

Note: this article reflects personal experience, which is not the same for everyone.

What I didn’t know about panic attacks before I started having them:

1. The panic feels like a heart attack.

It feels like your body is on fire. During the first panic attack, you will think about calling an ambulance, shouting at the paramedics to fix you. Something is wrong and I don’t know what, you will think. I’m dying, you’ll say.

 The thought that you are having a heart attack makes you feel it more. The feeling builds. This is when it starts–the room moving in circles. Your heart pounding in the silent, dark room. You’ve never felt this alone, never felt this disconnected from your surroundings, from a bed you know, from people you love.

2. Breathe.

This is most important. This needs to become your first response to panic. If you can visualize your fear, visualize each breath as a strike against it.

Breathe through the panicky, scattered thoughts. Breathe into the tips of your toes and your fingers. Stretch your limbs and imagine your breath filling the narrowest spaces in your lungs. Breathing is the only way back. It is the constant reminder of your being. You can’t live unless you breathe.

Help build your defense by practicing your breathing. These are some good resources, too.

3. Every panic attack is a journey back to normalcy.

Tell yourself this and dig your heels in. Just get back.

Getting through a panic attack is like swimming toward the light against the current. You are pulled back deeper, deeper into the water. Everything within your body is pulling you back. Your mind has to push forward. That is the only way out of anything.

Pulling yourself out of a hole takes practice, like learning to recognize a dream is not reality when you’re in it. Learn what works for you. For me, it’s breath and petting my cat. Simple, maybe, but they help.

4. During a panic attack, the amount of life flowing through your body will make you want to scream.

You’ve never been so aware of being alive, of your beating heart, of the pattern of your breath.

On the outside, you may look completely normal. Others may have a hard time telling something’s wrong. Look in your eyes, though, and they’ll see fear and a person fighting to climb out of it.

5. In trying to climb out of the panic, you will feel like a child, writhing and grasping at whatever is closest to hold onto.

In these moments, familiarity helps. You feel like a child again. You want your mother.

Sometimes your arms reaching might hold onto the wrong person. This person brings short-term comfort. If this person is only a comfort in the panic, look for another source.

6. You will win over your body.

You will learn to live and continue to live day after day. You wonder if you’re going crazy. You aren’t.

In the midst of it, you might forget who you are, what you love, how you think, what is important. It’s okay. Try not to worry about this. Don’t convince yourself that the parts of your brain are changing beyond recognition. You will remain you.

You will wonder if this will ever get better. Will some invisible switch in your brain finally flip back to normal? Probably not. It will happen many more times, but you will live through each one. You will live.

7. People will tell you to “just relax.”

They will insist your condition is merely a product of stress, as though parting with a few obligations would magically cure you. Relax will forever be a complicated word. Sometimes you can even feel the panic in moments of joy.

Others will tell you to keep busy, that by filling your life with the outside world, you’ll be less likely to turn inward.

Both are really too simple. Find what fits you. Seek outside help (I did).

8. You will learn to appreciate the panic attacks, in a strange way.

They suck, yes, and you hate them. You often wish you didn’t experience them, but you understand that you learn from each one.

You will realize they have changed the way you interact with the world for good. You can no longer disregard the warmth of the sun on your skin.

It’s nearly impossible to understand this during, but what is happening is pretty amazing, right? The way your body is trying to protect you by working more than it needs to. Take out the fear and pain and you have your body, doing the same thing it would if a lion was chasing you, fighting for survival.

9. The world afterwards will be dark.

You will feel exhausted, nauseous. It will feel like the entire world is on your shoulders. You never believed that cliche, but you will understand it now.

The world needs you to come back. There is no giving up. Your only options is to keep writing, to try to understand this thing, to try to help others.

Final Thoughts

Nothing is ever entirely bad or good. It’s all messy. Panic disorder is the same way. For me, it’s one of those “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” things. Once you recognize you’re not dying, you can get back to living. That is the mentality I needed to get back.

If I could help just one person who is going through the same thing, I would. I know going through this, especially in the beginning, is scary. It’s easy to feel alone. You’re not. We can all learn to live with the fear.

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