Facing Panic Attacks Head-On

November 5, 2018

An abstract painting with a mix of bright and dark colors.

When I had my first panic attack a little over two years ago I thought I was dying. There is no better way to describe it, even though I have no idea what death actually feels like.

I couldn’t breathe and I was convinced that this was the end. It was scary and horrifying and a tad bit embarrassing. Once you recover and realize you aren’t actually dying and you are actually breathing, it feels like you should have been able to know that in the moment too. However, if you’ve ever experienced a panic attack then you understand this is hardly the case.

After the first one happened I never wanted to experience that feeling again. I wouldn’t want anyone to experience that feeling, even my own worst enemy. Unfortunately, though, they kept happening and even more unfortunately, they got worse. If I thought the first one was bad I was mistaken, although at least now I knew what was going on.

I always thought that if I had the answer to why something was happening or what something was, then that would make things easier. Once again, if you’ve ever experienced a panic attack you know that with anxiety, depression, and panic having the answers really doesn’t help anything. Yes I know I’m breathing, yes I know this a temporary state, yes it’s still happening and yes I’m still going to panic and be unable to fight it.

As the panic attacks increased the circle of places that I could go decreased. I stopped going out, doing things I loved, and seeing people who mean the world to me, all because it wasn’t worth facing that feeling of not being able to breathe.

Out of my anxiety, depression, and panic disorder, I think the latter might be the one I’ve struggled with the most. It seems that every time I think I have it figured out in a way that I can survive, it changes shape and I have to start all over. Even when I got my anxiety and depression in a more manageable state, the panic attacks would still come. I know panic attacks and anxiety go hand in hand, but I would essentially be calm and prepared and then still have a full-on panic attack. Although, now that I’m typing this I can’t help thinking, “Well duh, isn’t that what anxiety, depression, and panic are known for? Being unexpected and not knowing what would cause them?” The answer is yes but, whereas I could do things to try to manage my anxiety and depression, I didn’t feel there was anything I could do to reduce my chances of having panic attacks. If they wanted to happen they were going to happen.

My therapist has always told me that eventually I will get to a place where I will be somewhere and feel a panic attack coming on but just be able to keep going or take a pause and be fine. From someone who had to physically run away and go home any time her panic attacks were happening my response was, well that would be nice but sounds impossible. Then a few weeks ago something unreal happened: I had a panic attack and I didn’t need to completely run away. For once my desire to stay overpowered my desire to run. The panic attack still happened, but it was different. I was calm and aware of two things: that it was happening and that I would get through it and be okay.

An abstract painting with a mix of bright and dark colors.

“Breakthrough” by Preston M. Smith

After that, for once I finally felt hopeful but also because I’m me I thought this was a fluke and it would never happen again. Then it did. I felt a panic attack coming on and I was able to calmly work through it and listen to what my body needed to be okay. I finally started to believe my therapist, that someday I could feel a panic attack coming and not need to completely stop my life to let it happen. It seems so possible. I was able and am still able to face my panic and instead of letting it overtake me, look it in the eyes and say, “I see you and I’m here for you but I am the one driving this bus and you are just a temporary passenger.”

A lot of people tell me that they see how much progress I’m making and how far I’ve come and to be honest I haven’t always believed them. But something in me has shifted, I’ve broken down a wall in a huge way. I not only see the progress I’ve made, but I feel it. I am hopeful, I am confident, and I know that the bad times are only temporary. Are they still going to happen? 100%! In fact I was scared to even write this because I don’t want to be judged the next time I have a panic attack that may be too big to process. But for the first time in a long time, I feel hopeful that I’ll be able to get through them every time.



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