I was first diagnosed with panic disorder while I was in high school, back in 2007. I also think I had bits and pieces of other conditions, such as generalised anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder, but the panic attacks are what I was really worried about. Panic disorder is characterised by a continual fear of recurring panic attacks.
I remember my first attacks – they started happening as I was preparing for exams. Now, believe me at this point I was already no stranger to stress or anxiety, and I had spent the previous year wallowing in depression. But when I started having these attacks it was nothing like I had ever experienced before. It was the most intense psychological distress I had ever felt. It felt like someone was choking me, or the air was turning into something unbreathable. My insides felt as though they were burning. My muscles were locked in tension. And there was a sense of impending doom, terror and hopelessness. I felt an array of sensations I didn’t even know the human body could produce, and I did not like them one bit.
Music had been my sanctuary up until then, but I learnt pretty quick that even a favourite song cannot stop a panic attack. There was literally nothing which could stop them. There was no activity or environment where I was safe from them, and I soon began to have them almost all day, everyday. Now, according to many sources panic attacks are supposed to peak within 10 minutes and then subside. I laughed myself silly when I read that. Mine generally lasted hours – but it was kinda hard to define when they began and when they ended. It wasn’t a question of “am I having a panic attack?” but more “how severe is my panic at the moment?” So yes, there I was, continuously fearful of what exactly?
When I try to explain to people that the only thing I was afraid of during a panic attack was the panic attack itself, they often find the concept difficult to grasp. I mean, it’s not like there was anything physically wrong with me, and I wasn’t experiencing any events that would generally be described as dangerous or even that difficult. Of course, in the beginning there was something other than fear itself which I was afraid of, and this is what triggered the first few attacks. But very quickly the condition moved to stage 2 panic disorder, where the panic attacks themselves were the thing I was most scared of. And boy, was I scared of them – for about 8 years!
Looking back I can now summarise why I felt so scared of these attacks. I had formed some beliefs about these attacks which caused my subconscious brain to always be on the lookout for them. I was afraid of what the panic attacks represented. They represented failure of me to get control of mind. Failure to show I can cope. Failure to be the strong, confident and attractive man I wanted to be. Failure to be happy like I thought people were supposed to be. Failure to make any progress. And so on. In other words, I thought the panic attacks were ruining my life – and so I was afraid of them. I thought they were ruining my chances of taking advantage of all the amazing opportunities which life presented me with.
And so I believed each hour spent panicking was a lost opportunity. So, the question I will leave you with is “was I correct?”