The first time I experienced a panic attack I was 18. I had just started university, and was a little over a month in. On this specific day, a Saturday, I was at the library alone studying for a calculus exam. I remember so vividly how I was desperately trying to solve a mathematical equation when this immense feeling of pure, unadulterated fear flooded through me. The feeling was, in fact, so intense that I physically leapt from the desk I was sitting at and ran a few feet away, embarrassingly causing fellow students to look up from their own papers for a second before turning their gaze back towards their own textbooks.
I remember clearly how completely and totally rattled I was. I remember shoving my books hastily into my bookbag, slinging that same bookbag over my shoulder and heading to the exit of the Queen Elizabeth 11 Library with silent tears streaming down my face. I would later fail that course, which only worked to increase my anxiety and which would make sense seeing how whenever I hauled the textbook out I was triggered. Yep, I would go on to have another panic attack every single time I laid eyes on that textbook.
I did not know that that would be the result that day. I did not know that it was only going to get worse from then on out. At least before it got better. That other things would become triggers. That I would eventually be unable to sleep. Or eat. I thought that the feeling that I had had, though completely terrifying, was also a one-off.
At that moment in time I thought it had passed. Whatever it had been. I didn’t know I would go on to fail that course. I didn’t know that I would re-take it and then go on to complete a higher-level calculus course to prove to myself that I could do it. And get an A. I didn’t know I would find the strength to do that.
I didn’t know I would ever find the strength to tell anyone. Let alone write about it on this blog.
As I write this, today, it is still so, so difficult to think back to how scared I was at that time. I literally have so much sadness in my heart for that young, 18-year-old kid, walking out those doors and not having had the sweetest, most remote idea of what was happening to her. I just see her there, her being me, crying and terrified.
Just hoping that she would never have to experience that feeling again.
Well, I wish that had been the case. I have had thousands of panic attacks since that day. I have been battling generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) since that very fast panic attack, that very first time, in that library at 18. I have been through hell and back. I have tried everything to cure myself. I mean seriously, you name it, I’ve tried it.
I also know that having this disorder has made me a better person. And there are times that I am thankful, at least in part, for that.
You know, today, I know what’s happening to me when it’s happening. I know now that I have a genetic predisposition for anxiety. That my brain does not produce enough of the necessary neurotransmitters to combat irrational fears and worries. I know that anxiety means that I also have to deal with waves of depression.
I have asked “why me” a thousand times.
I know now what I was experiencing at that time, and that does make things a little easier. It’s what is known as my body’s fight or flight response, which again, is essentially in place to protect me. Similarly, to what I discussed in my post Hardwiring Happiness, the bodies fight or flight response was once necessary to avoid predators, to sustain survival. To continue the proliferation of our species. But today, our anxieties are usually not life-threatening.
Failing that test was not going to place me in jeopardy of, say, my life. Fundamentally, I was perceiving a life-threatening event where there wasn’t one. I was fleeting due to an irrational fear or worry. I was scared of becoming a failure, which only further fuelled and exasperated the very anxiety which was becoming detrimental to my success in the first place. What an irrational cycle!
Anxiety is so complex and so hard to manage. Harder still to navigate. It makes you question your sanity. It makes you wonder whether you’re losing your mind. It’s awful. Totally self-destructing.
But if this is something you’re dealing with, I want you to know that you truly are not alone. I know so many people in this same boat. And this is just the story of the first panic attack I have ever experienced. I have had thousands more. Be kind to yourself. You’ll get through it. If I can, you can. Xo