It’s 11 a.m. on a warm and sunny October day. I am sitting in a chair, listening to a conversation between two people. One of them is my mentor, a psychologist with a specialty in clinical psychology, and the other is a voluntary participant in a clinical research study. We’re in an office space on the 22nd floor of a hospital building.
My chair is leaning against the wall, and my black tea is sitting conveniently to my right on a small rectangular table. To my left is a small, bare window that offers a view of the blue sky and distant tall buildings. The room is bland, unattractive and poorly lit. As I continue listening to the conversation happening around me, I suddenly begin to feel discomfort.
The feeling of discomfort grows exponentially in a matter of seconds; my pulse quickens, my heart races, my body shakes and my temperature rises. I know I have to do something. My breathing becomes shallow, I start sweating profusely and I begin to feel faint. Now I know I really must do something. I’m worried that I might be gasping for air very soon. To cope, I start looking around for exits, mentally tracing the various ways that will get me out of the building fast.
I note that the stairway is the best option as I certainly can’t use the elevators and risk being stuck in one. Then, I remember the window. At that moment, I feel instant relief set in, knowing that if I need air, I can just open the window. My heart stops racing, and my breathing normalizes. In the clarity of my relief, I can now identify the episode as a panic attack.
Understanding Panic Attacks
A panic attack does not last very long; episodes may only last a few minutes, but due to the intensity of the experience, after the body goes back to “normal,” people often feel depleted of all their energy. In some cases, people’s legs feel wobbly and can’t sustain the weight of their bodies. Sometimes, people notice that their bodies continue to shake, and their thinking becomes clouded and confused.
Personally, I’ve found that the aftermath of a panic attack sometimes lasts longer than the episode itself. Accordingly, I will go to great lengths to avoid anything that could trigger another episode.
After a panic attack happens, the brain forms an association between its occurrence and the context of the episode (whereabouts, companions, current activities etc.). This process leads to an automatic avoidance response to the site or context in which the panic attack occurred, whether it’s a particular street, a certain comment or a specific activity.
Once formed, the mental association reinforces the avoidance behavior, which means that a reminder of where or how panic attack occurred — or even thinking about it, in more extreme cases — could cause another panic attack. Moreover, the very act of avoiding the context in which the panic attack occurred further solidifies the mental association, creating a vicious loop.
While panic attacks result in similar symptoms for most people, the actual experience of a panic attack is different for everyone and really determines how we react going forward — and how we can cope.
Making Changes for Recovery
Living with anxiety and panic disorders is difficult; sometimes, it can feel like symptoms are affecting every area of life. At the height of my anxiety attacks, I had to make quite a few lifestyle changes to avoid triggers and overwhelming myself, including spending less time out with my friends, putting aside my studies and taking on fewer responsibilities at work. I also made a few positive changes, like practicing meditation on a regular basis, eating healthy meals and exercising. These changes and new routines were the driving force behind my recovery.
Ultimately, I’ve found that the key to overcoming my anxiety is systematic lifestyle changes and perseverance. Once I implemented these changes, I stuck to them and followed them diligently. I found resources online, as well as tips and guidance from practitioners and peers alike. Today, I can say I am free of panic attacks, and my anxiety no longer controls my life.
Yasmina Rebani-Lee co-founded Mindriselife.org to help other people with anxiety find resources and support to help them overcome their anxiety. She strongly believes in the positive power of peer support in driving recovery from a mental illness. Connecting with others is her way of giving back.