When Anxiety and Panic Attacks Hit; Hit Back with Therapy
I have been going to therapy for five years but, if someone would have asked me about it, I would probably have lied, or changed the subject. I guess that’s starting to change; right here, right now.
I was a twenty-year-old college student when I first experienced my first panic attack. I was on campus when I felt this sharp pain in my chest. I thought my body was going to just drop. For the rest of the semester, I was convinced I was physically sick. The following month, I found out what I was having were symptoms, not of the flu or a cold, but of a panic attack.
During my first year of therapy, I was diagnosed with anxiety and acute depression. My psychologist helped me understand that symptoms of panic attacks and depression had been occurring throughout my childhood and earlier adolescent years; no one picked up on it—not my family, and certainly not me. As a child and as a teenager I got a lot of colds, fevers, flu-like symptoms, as well as stomach issues, where I would get full without eating of too little or not at all. In college, those signs of having an anxiety attack were detectable and harder to ignore. My palms clammed up and I always felt lightheadedness to chest tightness.
For a while, anxiety left me paralyzed, mixed with feelings of confusion, shame, and embarrassment. In denial that something was wrong, I grew physically and mentally exhausted and, therefore, thought sleeping it—whatever had me so burnt—off was the best solution. However, it intensified my anxiety and depression and at one point, getting out of bed and the house was not an option. Prior to calling and making an appointment with a therapist, I only thought about it but at the time, I affiliated something such as therapy to being “crazy/mentally unstable/damaged goods/screwed up in the head.” A lot of those thoughts came from the stigma I had absorbed throughout my life directed at those who sought help.
During my Christmas break as a junior in college, I was at one of my many lowest points. Whenever I woke up, immediately I broke out into a sweat and a rapid heartbeat that hurt my chest. Almost numbing myself to whatever I felt or thought, after waking up, I would just roll over and fall back asleep. One day, my mother woke me up—it was the middle of the day—asking if I ever planned to get out of bed. For the first time in my life, I was unsure if I even could.
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She suggested therapy.
I started crying.
The following day, after some debate, I revisited the idea of therapy. I called my health insurance. They emailed me over a list of psychologists and psychiatrists near my home. I ignored the email and flipped back and forth. I opened another tab on the laptop.
Finally, I pulled myself together and I called around five different psychologists. After leaving three voicemails, one of them returned my phone call. My soon-to-be psychologist called me back and requested to meet. I met with her for the first time that following week.
Five years later, I am still going to therapy, on and off, and I continue to credit my evolving recovery to both my psychologist and the therapeutic modality in which we work with called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of treatment that involves viewing the “bigger picture” from an objective perspective, like a TV or movie viewer who is trying figure out the plot turns and twists. That is also the irony itself—looking at not just your own life but others’ and being asked, “Why do you think they said that or did that” or one of my least favorites because it addresses the elephant in the room, aka not being in denial “Why do you think YOU said or did that.”
I am still learning to acknowledge my thoughts and feelings about certain situations, but that is okay. I continue to learn in CBT that taking care of your mental health is an ongoing, work-in-progress. Therapy can seem like a chore for some people but for me, I WANT to go. Looking back at my earlier twenties and seeing how today, I will actually pull the “Hey, I need to talk,” or just text my psychologist and tell her what has been bothering me is a huge growing step for me. Back then, I refused to take care of myself because at the time, I believed asking for help was a sign of weakness and failure.
My first few weeks of therapy were shit because I had no coping skills. If I was uncomfortable or anxious in a situation, I would just get up and leave. Something my psychologist and I worked on for the first year of CBT was to get me to sit it out, to deal with an unpleasant situation rather than run. Ultimately, I started listening to my psychologist and sat out the panic attacks, self-talking myself through them, and embraced the intensity of the anxiety itself. Often, I reminded myself that I was safe and just having a panic attack, which I was convinced would kill me. That was also something CBT taught me was that a panic attack could not take someone’s life. The body was too alert and shaken to shut down; if anything, a panic attack just ‘woke up’ the body.
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Looking back, there were many days and nights where I felt like a failure and my battle with anxiety, and on and off acute depression would prevent me from pursuing my dreams. But it was my truth. I feel there are many people whom I know or know of, and struggle with mental health challenges, find themselves asking: Will I be okay?
My answer to this question changes like the weather.
That is why Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has played a huge role in my recovery, because I found clarity. For the past five years, my psychologist has guided me towards the healthier, and more certain, path for both my physical and mental health. She did so recently when I had approached her about the irony of writing stories and making movies about mental health. This opened discussion on my passion with being open on my own personal history with it. In fact, the idea of being triggered due to older habits of thinking, “Am I being too open to the point of scaring or pissing people off,” used to scare me.
What changed my mind was my resolve to tell the story that a mental health disorder does not, nor ever will, ruin one’s own life.
My anxiety attacks come and go. Some days, I roll my eyes at the symptoms of sweat and rapid heartbeat, or chest tightness. Other days, I still find myself wanting to curl up and remain in bed and not deal with it, as though it does not exist. My history with anxiety and acute depression has become manageable. Mental health challenges are not always “visible,” a fact that hit home for me when I confided to some family and friends on what was going on with my health. I heard more shocked and confused reactions such as, “I had no idea,” or somewhere along, “Oh, I thought you just looked tired and stressed.”
Growth takes time—for the person with mental illness and for their family and friends. Every now and then, I can recognize how I am changing because asking for help is not easy. Seeking help is not easy as well, because something such as one session of therapy does not solve everything. It is why therapy can be hard work and I am human, like everyone else, and often want a day and not think of anything.
Nowadays when I go to therapy, it is to check in and make sure that I am taking time for myself in the best way possible, especially when there will be the inevitable ups and downs in life.
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This reminds me of those last fifteen minutes of my first therapy session, where my psychologist recommended I come in weekly for a few months, until the anxiety symptoms were not intense. She wanted me to have more coping mechanisms to incorporate into my routine such as running, walking, and doing different breathing relaxation techniques, before spreading out our weekly meets to every other week and, ultimately, once a month. Now, in that same moment, I was also pissed, due to fear. My mind continued to affiliate help with failure; I convinced myself that, in order to get better, I had to put aside my goals and aspirations.
But in that moment I knew that getting help from someone who was not a friend or relative was what I needed in order to heal. I knew I needed the objective perspective of someone who would not judge me. That was the moment when my psychologist told me, “This is the last time you will ever feel this much pain with what is bothering you and the feeling of anxiety and depression consuming your life.”
That was the moment I realized I wanted the help that was being offered. I believed her.
Asking for, and accepting, help is never a sign of weakness and something to never be ashamed of; ever. Therapy is not for everyone but, for many, it can be a lifesaver. It certainly saved my life multiple times and I still feel that way about it whenever I leave a session. Besides, the first therapy session has usually been considered as a consultation, where it feels more like an interview and giving a brief history of your background, especially if it is dealing with more personal questions.
Some days are brighter and hopeful and, at times, I scream, cry, or complain how I cannot do it anymore and want to quit my dreams and therapy. This feeling of wanting to give up occurred at the end of summer when I reached out to a crisis line for the first time—four times in a week. At the time, I had difficulty dealing with a breakup and some other friendships and work fallouts, while working a ten to sixteen-hour weekly job that did not support mental health. I hit a wall and saw it was a problem that needed to be fixed, especially when I recognized my control over changing my environment. So, I did, and the first step was reaching out to my psychologist, where I texted what happened and something that was harder than expected to send her, “I need to come back weekly. My work won’t allow me to come in earlier or later to see you, but I’m willingly to lose my job so I can take care of myself.”
Ultimately, I was fired by my job but, in the end, I can say that deciding to put my mental health first was, and continues to be, one of my best decisions. Today, I am in a better place and I do my best and put my ego aside and learn to surrender to seek help when I need it.