When I started getting panic attacks again, I had no idea what was happening. I was more confused than worried- was this just a symptom of growing up and taking on more stress in my life?
Looking back, in some form or another, I’ve been getting panic attacks since I was 10 or 11 years old. Back then, I would get sudden onset irrational fears and terrors (I vividly remember the feeling of dread kick in, and the fright of the dark and intruders would be rampant). I mostly discounted these episodes as being a ‘scaredy cat’, and I didn’t understand that validating these as panic attacks were even possible.
As I grew up, my panic attacks slowed for a few years. I graduated high school and started my physics degree, and in those years, I absolutely flourished. I matured personally, academically, and professionally, and I found a passion for leadership and advocacy. I was surrounded by friends and I loved the life I was leading. To be clear, my mental health was still far from flawless, and I spoke with councillors regularly about my OCD and grief. I was solid, though- I was ‘fully okay’.
Then I had another panic attack. I was studying for my second-year winter exams, and I had stayed up late to cram for a math exam. I felt like my insides were in knots, and that someone had shrunk my lungs to a fraction their size- I couldn’t take deep breaths and I felt dizzy. As these kicked in, I felt my mind go blank I started to uncontrollably cry and hyperventilate. I ended up on the floor as I rode out the panic attack. I came out of it a few moments later and started breathing and unclenching my muscles. As I mentally came back, thoughts of panic and self-hatred and terror crept in.
‘You’re never going to succeed- you’re not smart enough for a physics degree’
‘You’re too fat for people to like you, and you don’t have a single friend’
‘You could die right now, and no one would care. No one would be upset’
I don’t know how long it was until I got off the ground, but I did. On shaky legs, I drank a glass of water and slowly found myself again as the thoughts quieted. I went to bed and I didn’t dream.
I felt ashamed that I couldn’t stop the panic attacks and the intrusive thoughts- how could I be trusted with anything of value or importance if I can’t even be trusted to handle my mind? If I told people about my panic attacks, would they think less of me for what I go through?
There wasn’t a moment when I felt okay with my panic attacks, no magic realization to stop feeling ashamed of them. My mentality slowly shifted as I became more educated about mental health in general, and I became more comfortable sharing my story as I listened to others do so. I told my dad about my panic attacks on a long drive. My best friend found out when I had one during Wine Night. I told my boyfriend soon in our relationship, and he held me through the first one I had in front of him.
I still get panic attacks (I had one last night!). In my experience, they really don’t get any easier the longer you have them- you just learn how to cope with them, and how to care for yourself afterwards. My panic attacks are usually sudden onset (meaning I have a few minutes’ warning that it’s about to happen), but I’m working on how I can control them if I’m in a bad place to have one. I’ve learnt how to breath through them, and have found mantras to repeat to myself as I work my way through the ensuing intrusive thoughts.
Beyond everything, I no longer feel ashamed or alone. I’ve started sharing my experiences with mental health in my writing and day-to-day life, and I mentor girls and talk with them about my panic attacks. I believe that by talking about my mental health with others does make a difference, as I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the brave people who shared their stories with me.
Panic attacks are very real and they are terrifying and they can be isolating and exhausting and painful, but panic attacks will never take away from my self-worth and my confidence.
I am who I am not despite of my mental health, but because of it. I choose to live my life as such.
Kristen is a Physics major at UBCO who lives with OCD and a panic disorder. She is an advocate, a learning technology specialist, and a black belt in karate. Find her on Twitter,