I made friends with my panic attacks & regained control of my life

Three epiphanies made their way to the forefront of my psyche. They were game changing.

Jon Flobrant | Unsplash

When I was 12, I had my first panic attack. With sweaty palms, a racing heart, the shakes and the feeling that everything around me was slipping away, I had no clue what was happening to me. All I knew was I was not in control of my body. It was sheer terror. I saw doctors, underwent a number of tests and got the all-clear. Though it was a relief to learn that nothing was medically wrong with me, I lived in fear of it happening again. And sure enough, it did. And again. And again.

As I grew, I began to put the pieces together. These “events” didn’t just come out of the blue; there was a trigger—an emotional trigger. Each incident was preceded by an overpowering fear or worry. A pain in my side meant appendicitis, a bumpy plane ride meant impending plane crash, and so on and so forth.

An anxious person since birth, I was no stranger to fear and panic. But this was taking it to a whole new level.

I spent years living in fear of it. I was afraid to sleep over at friends’ houses, go on field trips or just, in general, venture too far from home. As I grew older, I wouldn’t go on airplanes, ride the elevator or take business trips for work.

The day I told my two young boys I wouldn’t take them to the park on a beautiful Saturday morning was the day I decided to stop living in fear. That was the day I took action.

A psychiatrist eventually confirmed what I’d already believed to be true: I suffered from anxiety and panic disorder. He prescribed two types of medication and referred me to a cognitive behavioral therapist.

Though both talk-therapy and medication did help in many aspects of my life, it didn’t do much to move needle when it came to the severity or frequency of my panic attacks—at least, not in the intended direction. In fact, life’s pressures eventually pushed me to the point where the opposite began to happen: I continued to spiral down. At times, I’d even be afraid to leave the house—the mere thought of it giving me the shakes. I’d eventually muster up the strength to do it, but overall not a good place to be when you’re a full-time working mom of two young children. I was so afraid of having a panic attack while outside the safe confines of my home that it paralyzed me.

One Saturday morning, my boys asked me to take them to the park. Engulfed in fear and anxiety, I said no and blamed it on an aching belly. Instead, I plopped them in front of the TV and hoped that would satisfy them.

There I was, lying on the couch, watching my boys watch TV. What was I doing? What had I become? My two active, young boys wanted to spend a beautiful Saturday morning at the park with their mom, and this was how I responded? All because I was afraid of having a panic attack?

That was the day I decided to stop living in fear. That was the day I took action.

I set out to learn all I could about anxiety and panic disorder. I figured maybe if I could dissect this thing, I could get a better handle on what was happening to me.

As I learned all about the anatomy of anxiety and panic disorder and developed an understanding of the motivations behind my own panic attacks, an internal shift began to take place. My perspectives changed as a number of epiphanies made their way to the forefront of my psyche. They were game changing:

Game Changer #1—My panic attacks are trying to help me

No, that’s not a misprint. It all goes back to the fight-or-flight response—an internal process that prepares our body for a perceived threat. In other words, it’s our brain’s way of serving as our protector-in-chief.

Once I began to internalize this notion, I realized that my panic monster isn’t the evil foe I’d long since believed it to be. It’s not a monster at all. It’s not trying to kill me. It’s simply my brain’s protective mechanism—and it thinks it’s helping me.

“Panic disorder is actually a natural bodily reaction that is occurring out of context,” a sentiment by psychologist Thomas A. Richards of the Social Anxiety Institute, really drives this point home for me.

Game Changer #2—This is part of who I am. And I accept it.

I spent many years not only living in fear of the big, bad beast, but also trying to fight it. Each time I’d have an attack, I promised myself to never let it happen again.

That last one was the LAST ONE! I’m gonna fight it with everything I’ve got!

Then, without fail, it would happen again. Feelings of failure, disappointment and defeat would eat me whole.

How could I let myself succumb, once again?

But as I learned more about myself throughout this process, I came to recognize this self-deprecating behavior as incredibly destructive and counter-productive. So I took on a new approach: rather investing so much emotional energy trying to fend it off, I let my guard down and accepted it as a piece of what makes up the whole of me. I decided to own it and love myself in spite of it. And I made friends with it.

By accepting this “thing” merely as piece of the puzzle that makes me me, and embracing it with loving arms, I am less at odds with myself and more at peace in my own skin.

Once I stopped fighting this futile fight with something resided within me, the pressure lifted.

Game Changer #3—I’m in no real danger

While a panic attack has the power to convince you you’re in grave danger, that’s where its power ends. “During a panic attack, your body goes through the same physical processes as it would if you were in real danger,” says Richards. “The difference, of course, is that although you feel you are in danger, you really are not.”

The fact of the matter is, while the feelings of danger are real, the actual threat of danger is not. This was a huge ah-ha for me, as I was now able to give myself permission to let it happen without the fear of death. This thought, in and of itself, continues to have a calming effect on me: it’s one less thing to worry about when in the throes of panic.

Today, when I feel a panic attack coming on, I simply lie down and invite it in. I tell myself that what I’m feeling is okay; that it will pass. I give myself permission to let it happen and remember that this is nothing more than a harmless defense mechanism. And I breathe.

I don’t get angry at myself. I don’t pressure myself to push it away. I just let it be.

If I am successful in warding it off, I celebrate my accomplishment and give myself a pat on the back for a job well done. If I am not successful, I simply pick myself up, brush myself off, practice self-love and move on. I don’t wallow in regret and self-shame or look forward in fear. I simply move on. Then I give myself a pat on the back for a job well done—because either way, I’m making progress.

I still take medication, I’m still in therapy and I will always be prone to having panic attacks; I am now, and will always be, a work in progress. But by demystifying my perception of this thing that has plagued me most of my life, accepting it for what it is and loving myself in spite of it, I have been able to remove much of its power and take back control. Though everyone’s coping mechanisms are different, this is the formula that I’ve found works best for me.

Now, when my kids ask for my attention, I can give it to them—freely, completely and without fear.

Stephanie Young
Stephanie Young

Stephanie Young is a freelance communications consultant, writer and mother of two animated (wild) boys. She is the author of the eBook, “How to Eat Healthy Without Noticing: A Non-dieter’s Guide to Eating Better” and a regular contributor to a number of online publications and blogs in the areas of health and wellness, nutrition, parenting and relationships. You can also find her writing in the popular anthology, “I Just Want To Be Alone.”

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