my-panic-disorder-and-me

My panic disorder and me

In this post I want to let you in on something that has been a part of my life for a long time. Although I’m doing much better at the moment I have been struggling with panic disorder for quite some time now. For people to understand what this means and to break stigma surrounding mental illness, I decided to share my story with you.

mental-health-break-the-stigma

What exactly is panic disorder? Of course everyone experiences it differently, but for me it means I have periods of time where I frequently experience panic attacks. During what I call a mild attack I feel tense and nauseous. My body is also actually tensed up, which you can see because my hands will be balled into fists and I will kind of make myself small (slightly hunched over, shoulders pulled up). In the worst case a panic attack for me means I’ll be unable to focus on anything else, except for how sick and anxious I am feeling. I am tensed up, extremely nauseous, shivering/shaking, sweating, short of breath and I have difficulty sitting still. These symptoms would be useful if there was actual danger that you would need to run away from. Your adrenaline levels would shoot up which makes you be alert and ready to run, also speeding up your heartrate and breathing to enable you to do just that. However in this case there is no real danger. When such a heavy panic attack has passed I’ll feel exhausted and weak, which is logical seeing as my body has just used most of its energy to burn all that adrenaline.

How did this start for me? What I consciously remember to be the starting point of my panic attacks is the end of second grade of high school (age 14). We were watching a film in class and I suddenly became really nauseous. Okay, no biggie right? Everyone gets sick once in a while and has to go home. However, for me this was the start of a long during battle with myself. In the weeks after that time I went home, the nausea kept coming back. I often went home sick and missed a lot of classes. I didn’t know what was wrong with me so I went to my G.P., who sent me to a child specialist (I must’ve been 15 at the time). This doctor literally told me there was nothing he could do for me and that I had to “live with it”. But how can you accept that you’ll have to live the rest of your life like this, knowing you’ll be nauseous that often, when you’re only fifteen years old? At this time I didn’t realise my problems might not be physical, but could be psychological.

During the following years I tried different ways to live a “normal” life. I had low self-esteem and was often insecure and anxious. I avoided social events, going out for a meal or seeing a film in the cinema was very difficult for me. I carried a plastic bag with me everywhere I went, in case I was gonna throw up. I ended up going to an acupuncturist. I think the thought of me trying and the tips she gave me about a healthy lifestyle already helped a lot. I found out I was lactose intolerant, which could cause nausea. Slowly I started to feel better and started to gain some confidence in myself and my body’s abilities. My self-esteem improved and I started feeling better, my panic attacks became less frequent (although I still didn’t realise what they were). During the time when I was 17/18 years old I didn’t have many attacks and I even managed to get through to the last week of exams to finish high school with good grades. And then? I got stressed for the exams, which I would’ve probably been able to overcome if I didn’t mess up my second exam. The next day I threw up in the toilet at school, just before the next exam. The following week I was unable to eat any breakfast, because I would be so nauseous. I lost all the confidence I had built up. I did manage to get through the rest of my exams and went on to go to university.

I went to study psychology, ironic isn’t it? The first semester went by alright, academically. However, I was far from alright. I had frequent panic attacks, was constantly tired and I started feeling really down. At the beginning of the second semester, just before I turned 19, I decided to move out of my parents’ house to move to the city of my university. The moment I lived on my own, was the moment I realised that I was in a really bad place, mentally. I would compare this feeling as drowning in sea: you keep on swimming, but every time the waves push you under or the current tries to drag you down. You keep coming up for air, but you’re exhausted from trying, and at some point you won’t be able to come up for air anymore. I actually realised I was having panic attacks because it was a topic in a lecture. At this point I had lost my faith in my G.P. but I went to him one last time to ask for a referral to a psychologist, which he gave me! And I’m not exaggerating when I say that this has been the thing that saved me.

After getting my referral (5 years after the first time I went looking for help!!) I went to see my psychologist once a week, which later became once every two weeks. I got diagnosed with panic disorder with characteristics of agoraphobia. My treatment consisted of talking with my psychologist about my thoughts and feelings, homework to identify my problematic triggers, breathing and relaxation exercises and changing dysfunctional negative thoughts to positive, helpful and calming ones.

The most important lesson I learned? Accepting is not equal to giving up. Before I realised accepting meant saying: “I’ve got panic disorder, I have to live with it and it will not get better than what it is now.” Sounds like giving up doesn’t it? But this is not what accepting means. Accepting means saying: “Yes, I do have a panic disorder and I have to live with that.” However it does not mean it will never get better. It is important to understand that accepting does not mean you stop fighting to get better. It does mean you have to stop fighting your disorder, at this moment you have it, that isn’t going to change. What you have to do is put all the energy you use to fight the disorder, into fighting to get to a life that is liveable, and maybe even a life where you don’t have to fight to get better anymore, cos you are better. I will not deny that it is hard work, or that it might not completely go away. I know I have a panic disorder, but I also know what it’s like to fight for improvement, instead of against my disorder. I know that now I’m doing better, I can have a relapse. I also know that I now have the tools to get better again if that were to happen.bangor university

My biggest achievement so far? Studying abroad in Wales for a semester. I have been back for a couple of months now and I can honestly say that I didn’t expect it to go as well as it did. A year before I went away I would’ve said you’re crazy if you told me I would go abroad, and look at me now!

As a closing statement I’d like to say: yes I have a panic disorder, but I am doing fine. I have days when it’s worse, but I know I can work to get better again. I am strong, and yes really, this disorder has made me stronger, because I now know what it’s like to fight for a goal and to believe in your own capabilities.

 

Do you have a disorder you’d like to talk about? Say it in the comments! And tell me your biggest achievement or your best tip while you’re at it!

Also feel free to reach out to me on facebook, instagram and twitter, or follow me on bloglovin‘ or pinterest!

  • Florian Kersten

    Hoi, ik vind het heel moedig dat je je verhaal deelt! Ik heb zelf ontdekt hoe belangrijk awareness is, zeker om stigma tegen te gaan. Als men niet snapt hoe een psychische aandoening in elkaar zit kan er moeilijk begrip komen. Jouw verhaal heeft mij in ieder geval al geholpen te begrijpen wat een angststoornis met je doet.

    Wat je zegt over het accepteren van je stoornis vind ik zeer herkenbaar, ook voor mij met psychose. Je leert jezelf en je grenzen beter kennen en daardoor sta je steeds sterker in je schoenen, ook al heb je af en toe slechte dagen.

    Is er trouwens iets wat je kunt doen voor iemand op het moment dat hij/zij een paniekaanval heeft?
    Groetjes

    • Hoi Florian, wat fijn dat je jezelf in mijn verhaal kan herkennen en dat het je meer inzicht heeft kunnen geven. Ik ben het helemaal met je eens dat je jezelf beter leert kennen en daardoor sterker wordt!

      Ik kan natuurlijk niet voor iedereen spreken als ik tips geef bij het helpen van iemand met een paniekaanval. Ik denk vooral dat het belangrijk is dat je aangeeft dat je er voor iemand bent en dat ze naar je toe kunnen komen als ze iets nodig hebben. Laat vooral ook zien dat het oke is dat het niet goed met ze gaat en dat ze zich niet schuldig hoeven te voelen wanneer ze een paniekaanval hebben. Mijn belangrijkste tip is vraag aan diegene wat zij fijn vinden, of nodig hebben, en geef ze een luisterend oor. Ik hoop dat je daar wat aan hebt!

      Groetjes!