Having panic attacks isn’t exactly a party, and it’s particularly awful when you encounter people who don’t think a young person “deserves” to feel free-floating panic and fear — as if you have to earn a mental health problem.
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Here are just a few crappy statements I heard as a teen from ignorant, unhelpful people: “What do you have to be anxious about?” “It’s all in your head.” “This is the best time of your life!” My responses, in order, were:
Everything; Nope; and Really?
The thing is, a healthy amount of anxiety can actually be a blessing. Healthy anxiety makes us cross from the dark side of the street to the side with better lighting. Healthy anxiety makes us intervene before we let a drunk friend drive home. Healthy anxiety gives us a gut feeling about that one particular “nice” guy, so we avoid him. Women aren’t generally taught to trust our inner signals — but more often than not, we find out later that our gut feeling wasn’t that far off.
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A panic attack is the regular anxiety response gone bananas.
It’s typically characterized by a sudden feeling of irrational fear accompanied by the ancient “fight or flight” response: elevated heart rate, surge of adrenaline or cortisol, and perspiration.
During panic attacks, some people also experience tingly hands and tension in the arm and leg muscles. Sometimes people experience nausea and feel as if they may throw up. Others report feeling as if they may suffocate or pass out.
For many, panic attacks usually pass after a few minutes, but some can definitely last longer. In part because a panic attack is a full-body experience involving not “just” the central nervous system but other systems, one can feel quite exhausted afterwards.
The fight or flight response is a great thing to have if, say, a dog darts out into the road in front of your car. You slam the brakes to avoid him, and even when you know he’s safe, you probably feel a bit freaked out for a few seconds, right? Totally normal.
But what if you had that elevated freaked-out feeling every time you tried to go to the movies, or to a grocery store, or even to class? What if the trigger for such a feeling were nothing life-threatening, but just the regular elements of your ordinary day?
Welcome to my life in my teens and early twenties.
I was an anxious child born into an anxious family. Not everyone in my family has experienced mental health struggles, but I have four generations of pretty decent evidence that there’s an inherited tendency toward this sort of thing (of course, there’s also actual medical research to back up this assertion).
I had my first panic attack when I was eight or nine years old, but I didn’t speak up and ask for help until I was in high school. And it took several years for me to find the right combination of treatments that worked for me.
A psychiatrist once told me I had the right “genetic loading” for anxiety and depression, considering my family medical history. And indeed these are very real medical issues. But the stigma around mental illness is what prevents many people from speaking up and getting lifesaving care.
I felt ashamed of having panic attacks and depression (talk about a yo-yo of an emotional ride) and so when a doctor prescribed a particular medication when I was 16, I took it and pretended it worked.
It didn’t. But I didn’t realize there were other options out there. I thought if that one pill didn’t work, I must be doomed to end up forcibly tossed into an institution, the way I’d seen it happen in movies.
Even with encouragement and understanding from my parents, I still felt a deep amount of shame. I didn’t want to be different from my peers in high school and college.
But eventually the panic attacks got worse because I kept my mouth shut about them. In college, I developed a condition called agoraphobia and became afraid to even leave my house. I grew so despondent (and so convinced that I’d never get better), that I became suicidal. That’s when I dropped out of school and moved home to get real help.
I saw a psychiatrist who prescribed a medication that actually helps me. I learned about mindfulness practices that helped calm my body and mind. I learned about proper nutrition and sleep — both of which helped my entire body function better (and gave that medication a chance to actually work).
As my shame lifted, so did the stress of that shame. With all these different elements falling into place, I felt better within a month. I was leaving my house again, eating again, sleeping normally. Within two months, I was driving a car again and began looking for work.
My life has not been all sunshine and roses since then, and I’ve had to adjust my particular constellation of healing practices in response to changing times. There have been ups and downs. But I truly believe I’m evidence that access to good healthcare can take someone who is unable to work or attend school and turn her back into a healthy person.
If you’re struggling — even if you don’t have supportive family members or friends — you can get better and learn to manage your health issues. You may not even need to take medication.
Many people with mild to moderate anxiety and depression find they benefit enormously from regular cardiovascular exercise, talk therapy, and other healthful practices. Don’t let the shame or fear of embarrassment keep you from seeking out assistance in your community.
Some therapists will work on a sliding scale and offer low-cost or no-cost therapy to people who need it (especially for students or those with low income). There are books, podcasts, and websites that offer breathing exercises that can help. I particularly love the writing of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and the podcast by therapist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach.
Don’t think about curing it, at least not right now. Think about getting your head above water and learning to manage it.
If I’d given up when I wanted to, I would have missed out on the fullness of life, of meeting incredible people, and seeing and doing incredible things.
Treatment hasn’t turned me into an unfeeling zombie on one end or a totally enlightened, chill angel on the other. But it has played an important part in enabling me to experience life as a full participant. And I truly believe the same is possible for you.
(Featured image and art via Shutterstock)