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I was at University and I had been on two heavy nights out in a row; I then thought it would be a good idea to play a game of high-intensity 5-a-side football in the hottest gym ever on an empty stomach, which I believe would’ve made anyone feel horrendous. My panic attack came around ten minutes afterward when the nausea and the palpitations didn’t disappear. I didn’t recognise it as anxiety. I thought I was dying and it took me hours to fully come around afterward. For a period of several weeks, I continued to believe I was dying over and over again. I thought I had some serious underlying health problem that was killing me and so I had lots of these very physical episodes. Once I confirmed it was in fact anxiety, I had grown so scared of anxiety (fearing the fear) that the attacks kept coming until I was having as many as 20-30 panic attacks every day for almost 2 years. My days were pathetic, I wished them away and begged to fall asleep forever.
To add insult to injury, the stigma which I had developed from within myself, stopped me from telling anyone, let alone seeking help.
This was going to last forever, I was trapped in Hell.
What is My Life Like Now?
Believe it or not, I overcome my Panic disorder years ago, and it has never threatened to come back. I am confident to say it will never come back and I don’t have to touch wood.
I also don’t feel any stigma anymore. I am very open about my anxiety which I suffered and mild depression (which I still have), this includes with my mum who initially didn’t understand. I now write an anxiety blog which I aim at my friends and family and I have no fear or apprehension about the reaction to them or what people will think of me in general. If anything, it affects my life positively and hopefully it helps others reduce their anxiety. I have never suffered from a stigma externally, from friends or family anyway, therefore once I overcame my own fears of telling people, I no longer experienced it.
How, in Hell, did I do it?
First and foremost, I got it checked out several times by doctors. I needed to make absolutely sure this was anxiety and not an underlying, unidentified condition. Once I confirmed this, this was almost half the battle.
Afterward, I then went through a lot of trial and error and found a lot of things that didn’t work along the way. However, I would like to point them out as they may work for your version of anxiety attacks or panic disorder. I tried counseling, hypnotherapy, doctors’ advice, Pilates and Yoga but none of which worked. (The technique of having to focus on my breathing in Pilates and Yoga was terrifying and made me feel worse) I didn’t try CBT though and I believe this could have been very helpful, but I wasn’t really aware of what was out there at the time.
I then decided to attempt to understand my anxiety and why my panic attacks were happening, but whenever I thought I was getting somewhere, the next panic attack couldn’t be unexplained by the theory I had come up with; I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a reason for why it happened. I often thought maybe anxiety was trying to tell me something on a philosophical level like “You´re drinking too much alcohol”, “You´re not living your life the way you should” or “You´re overstressed and need to change career.” However, after overcoming my panic disorder my life circumstances had barely changed and when I cut the alcohol and caffeine, I still had panic attacks. (albeit less so)
I concluded that it was fruitless trying to understand anxiety philosophically. I decided that anxiety was stupid and one-dimensional; if I sought it out, then the panic would find me no matter what. For me, a lot of my panic attacks felt like they “came out of the blue” or quite often it was the physical symptoms that came first, rather than the worrying thoughts; the chicken came after the physical symptoms.
Despite this, I managed to develop a theory that explained this phenomenon on a biological level. Here it is:
I finally found I was able to think of my physical symptoms in terms of hangovers. I concluded that if my mind was completely calm, my body could still be stressed. E.g. After a really severe panic attack or a really stressful day, the stress lingers in my body a lot more than it does in my mind. It’s as though my body has a “hangover” from the previous stress. This is why I believe I often got those scary physical symptoms first which in turn caused the worrying thoughts and panic attacks to occur, rather than the other way around.
Once I came up with the hangover theory, I was then able to come up with a technique to overcome my panic attacks. I hypothesised that if I can somehow overcome these physical symptoms, then my thoughts would be much easier to control.
The method: I decided to focus on one physical symptom at a time (e.g. difficulty breathing), the reason being that we can only truly fear one thing at a time. Then, every time this specific physical symptom manifested itself, I did the 4-step challenge below. I did this to the extent that I may have even induced that particular symptom to occur, but rather than see this as a negative, it gave me a lot more time to practice.
The 4-Step Challenge
I said these things to myself, out-loud and quite slowly:
- “This is just anxiety”
- “These chest pains are not dangerous” (important to specify the exact symptom)
- “This will pass”
- Distract myself: reciting difficult times-tables, memorising my childhood romances in order, name 10 times beginning with the letter P etc.
After several weeks and some good days and bad days (recovery wasn´t linear), I eventually overcame my first symptom (stabbing chest pains). I found that once I overcame the fear of my chest pains, they stopped manifesting themselves altogether. E.g. No fear of chest pains = no chest pains.
I carried out this technique on each specific physical symptom that I was scared of, 1 v 1, until I had overcome all the physical symptoms I was previously scared of. I eventually came to a point where there weren’t any physical symptoms I feared anymore, which meant that no physical symptoms manifested themselves anymore which meant that no panic attacks happened; I was panic disorder free.
To this day, it has never threatened to come back.
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