I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my teenage and adult life, but I didn’t get my first panic attack until I was 28. For those who don’t know, panic attacks are like anxiety attacks but on steroids. The biggest difference being, anxiety often has a trigger, while panic attacks are random, though they can be a result of trauma. I cannot think of a more frightening experience in the entire world, and I don’t wish it on anyone. Many people don’t realize panic and anxiety can express itself in a very physical way. When I first started getting panic attacks, my symptoms included: feeling light headed, suddenly feeling overwhelmingly hot, heart rate shooting up out of nowhere, chest pains, palpitations, numbness, sudden intense fear, trembling, a throat closing sensation, and every attack had me feeling certain I was going to die etc. Imagine displaying any or all of the above symptoms at the same time for no reason. Panic attacks often mimic heart attacks as well, which is often how people learn they’ve had their first panic attack.
In the beginning of my journey, I was sure I had some kind of undiagnosed ailment, because I had gone my whole life without experiencing anything like this. I went through a gamut of tests in a futile attempt to get to the bottom of my “symptoms”. Everything was normal. I did end up developing some gastro issues and tension headaches along the way, which I’ve been told can be stress related. That would make sense, as I was in the most chronically stressed place in my adult life. I suffered mostly alone (with the exception of what I shared with my mom) for years, as I was ashamed of what I was going through and how people would react. I even stopped talking to a lot of people because I didn’t want to be a burden. I got tired of making up excuses to cancel plans and pretending to be a person I wasn’t anymore. It was an incredibly challenging and dark time. I drank to numb myself and there was a point where I wasn’t sure I wanted to be here anymore. I believe in seasons of darkness, but my God, 5 years? When would it end? I felt so stuck and hopeless. I prayed relentlessly, read all the self help books, tried acupuncture, changed my diet, you name it. I spent thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to get a diagnosis to no avail. All my ambitious goals? On the back burner until further notice and I had no idea when that would be. This was my new normal and it absorbed most aspects of my life.
How did I get better? I won’t lie and say that suddenly a miracle happened. There was a lot of trial and error, dark days and backsliding. It came down to grit, persistence, patience, and learning to lean on the people I love. Here are a few things I’ve learned throughout my journey that I offer to anyone looking to find relief:
#1 Find a Good therapist
I’ve been in therapy on and and off since I was 20 and a psych major, so I knew that’s where I should start. Being a flight attendant, living in different cities while never really spending much time in any wasn’t conducive to seeing anyone consistently. When I moved back to Chicago in 2016, I started searching for my person. My biggest tip for anyone new to treatment would be to shop around. Make calls and email questions before meeting. I specifically searched for therapists that focused on treating trauma, anxiety and panic attacks. If you don’t jive with your therapist upon meeting, no harm or foul, start over. It might take a bit, but finding the right person is crucial. I went through 3 before I found mine. I know it can be hard work, but you are worth it. You owe it to yourself. In the beginning I talked to mine weekly, now it’s only bi-weekly unless something comes up. I don’t even talk to her about panic attacks anymore! I should probably make a whole post on all the things therapy has taught me over the years and why everyone should have go. What I can say is, without therapy, I don’t know that I’d be here today. If you or anyone you know feel lost, overwhelmed, hopeless or scared, please advocate for yourself and start looking for a therapist if it’s accessible. Many therapists have sliding scales. If you can’t afford it, know there are many crisis hotline numbers you can call or text free of charge. Many workplaces also have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program). EAP is anonymous and they can talk to you and hook you up with free referrals. My work place provides 4 free sessions with a therapist through EAP so look into yours to see if that’s an option.
#2 Take Inventory and Get Rid of Possible Triggers
For me, this meant, removing caffeine for a while. While I’m back to drinking coffee, it’s always the first thing to go when I’m feeling anxious. Everyone’s body reacts differently, but for me there’s a noticeable difference in how I feel, when I remove coffee. I reduced my alcohol consumption because sometimes a hangover came with an unexpected panic attack. I started making sure I was getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep. I made it routine to work out consistently. I created routine, period. It helps to keep you grounded. If there is an event coming up or something I’m nervous about, I prepare as much as I can ahead of time or learn as much as I can about the topic/event. For example, I know this is strange because I’m a flight attendant, but I can be a nervous flyer. I’m mostly afraid of getting a panic attack in the air and i’ve had many. It doesn’t stop me from flying, I just come prepared and have different tactics I use at different benchmarks once my anxiety begins to climb.
#3 Learn to Become Self Aware and Create Benchmarks
Once I had anxiety and panic attacks for a few years, I learned to be highly sensitive to my body and how it feels in different environments. I know right away if something feels off. There is often a sense of a panic attack coming before any actual symptoms appear. I’ve learned, this is a good thing. The thing with anxiety and panic, is that while there is a textbook definition for both, no ones experience is exactly the same. For me, if anxiety strikes and starts climbing fast, I know a panic attack is probably coming. Benchmarks in this case mean time. I check my heart rate, 10 minutes on the clock, I start some belly breaths, if this helps, I know it’s anxiety and I can manage without doing anything else. If it doesn’t help and more symptoms appear, depending on the situation, I might move or put some peppermint on my forehead, drink cold water, distract. If this doesn’t work, meaning i’m at a level 7 and climbing, I take 1/2 a .25 mg Xanax. I have had enough anxiety and panic attacks to know when to bust out the xanax. For the record, it’s my last resort and rarely use it these days, but there was definitely a time where I was popping them like Tic Tacs. Thankfully it’s always served its purpose and never become an addiction for me. Either way, I know how scary high anxiety and panic attacks can be, and Xanax works, so I’m all for it.
#4 Exposure, Do the Things That Scare You
This is my least favorite but necessary tactic. If you have anxiety or panic, the worse thing you can do, is stop doing things you love or enjoy. Trust me, I’ve been there and it sucks. You get to the point where you’re so scared to have a panic attack, you don’t even want to leave your home. You think you’re safe at home but really you’re just closing yourself off. Make peace with the fact that, panic and anxiety can strike anywhere. Being home will not prevent it from happening, you just might feel more comfortable there. It’ll also rob you of the life you could be leading despite your fear. I lost so many opportunities, memories I could’ve made, adventures I could’ve gone on for a long time because I was paralyzed by fear. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time for everything. Sometimes your anxiety and panic are on what I call a level 7-10 and you can’t think straight or enjoy anything anymore. At that point, it’s time to call it quits and just let your system reboot. For anything between a level 1-6, I push through. I’d be lying if I said, I was better for it. I remember hiking with my friends in Mexico once and feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I powered through until my arm started tingling and I started getting dizzy and finally stepped away to walk down the mountain and gather myself. I knew when to call it, and it helped. There was no way I was going to enjoy that moment while battling a panic attack.
#5 Be Honest and Open with People Around You
That hiking trip was full of panic attacks for some reason. I was deeply ashamed it happened in front of my friends, they had never seen that side of me but it was kind of the best thing that could have happened. Why? My friends reacted in such a kind and compassionate way. That moment made me feel like I could be myself, anxiety/panic and all. From then on, something changed. I started opening up to my friends about what I’d been enduring for so long. No one, judged, no one was afraid, no one treated me like a freak. It felt good to be accepted for all of me. Most importantly, I learned I was not the only one suffering. I believe things happen when you’re ready, and for me it certainly played out this way. Suddenly people started opening up about their anxiety, family, friends, co-workers. It was weird, I was like a magnet for people opening up. I can only surmise people felt safe around me, i’m glad if that’s the case. We all need someone to be a lighthouse for us during turbulent times. One of the hardest parts of anxiety and panic can be learning to lean on others and not be in control. Western culture all but hails individualism, but there should be no shame in needing help.
#6 Be Patient
Most important of all, learn to give yourself grace. This is not an easy feat for most people, myself included. It’s kind of the nature of the beast. When I first started getting panic attacks, everything was about how fast I could stop feeling this way. How quickly I could make it all go away and go back to being “normal”. The truth is, there had to come a point where I had to accept, this was my new normal. Okay, yeah these panic attacks really really suck, but, I’m still here and I deserve to make the best of it. Anxiety and panic attacks can wreak havoc on your self-esteem. They can have you settling for mediocrity at every fork in the road, because fear begins driving everything, if you let it. Fuck that, life is short, we deserve to create the best life for ourselves. This means enjoying the great days, learning to navigate the bad ones and knowing deep down that regardless, life does go on.
As I write this post, I haven’t had a panic attack in a year. The longest I’ve gone since 2014. I’d like to say I’ve overcome them, but that would be naive. I’d say I’ve learned to manage, and I’m going to make the most of my days until then. I still have anxiety and thats okay. It’s part of what makes me me. I’ve always been an extremely sensitive, empathic and caring person, perhaps because of this. I know deeply what it feels like to battle dark demons and sadly there are so many people fighting alone. The reality is, recovery from panic or anxiety isn’t linear. The best you can hope for sometimes is learning to manage. Still, this requires putting in work to deal with the deeply rooted issues that benefit from flight or fight responses. As the saying goes, “the only way out, is through”.
If you are dealing with chronic anxiety or panic attacks, remember you are not alone, though it may feel that way. More importantly, panic/anxiety DOES NOT define you. It’s simply a part of who you are. You can still live an amazing and beautiful life. You’ll probably even learn to appreciate the good days much more than most people. Whatever you do, hold on to hope for as long as you can, because it does get better.