This is what it’s like to have panic disorder (and no, it’s not the same as generalised anxiety disorder)

Strangely, I don’t think I’d really realised how extreme my behaviour had become. But one day, I distinctly remember waking up with what I can only describe as a dark cloud over me – I felt completely hopeless, like I’d never be happy again. Up until that point, I’d found my work as a journalist a good distraction, but that day I couldn’t bring myself to do anything.

I went for a walk, wondering if the fresh air would make me feel better, only to feel more and more low as I took each step. A lot of 2020 is a blur for me, but that day is infinitely clear as the moment I realised I needed help.

I knew the NHS was horribly overstretched and couldn’t offer counselling at that time, so I looked into private therapy and found a psychotherapist who specialised in anxiety. Looking back, I realise how privileged I was to have been financially able to support myself at that time.

By then, I wasn’t having my most intense panic attacks any longer, due to the medication, but I carried around a constant sense of unease and fear – and my feelings of depression that day were causing me to worry that there was something seriously wrong with me. Worries of various serious mental health scenarios consumed my mind (in a fun concoction of health anxiety and panic disorder as one).

It was through talking with my counsellor, Andrea*, that I began to learn that my panic – and fear of panic – was seriously controlling my life. During our first consultation, she taught me how to belly breathe as my first means of defence against anxiety, since I felt so helpless between sessions. 

Over the coming months, I worked a lot on rationalising my obsessive behaviours and fears, as well as learning to face my panic attacks head on, easing myself off the beta blockers.

By then, I had developed a number of behaviours that were holding me back, including avoidant behaviours which meant I had stopped doing certain things due to my anxiety.

For me, these included exercise, eating and drinking certain things and even leisure activities like watching TV and reading books. It sounds mad to say out loud now, but I’d become so convinced that I would be triggered by storylines of TV shows and novels that I would literally avoid it. Particularly, plots about characters with their own mental health struggles would trigger me into having a panic attack myself.

It’s a simple thing really, but it showed how my quality of life had completely changed – my day to day routine completely revolved around avoiding panic, rather than any little form of joy like reading or watching a show.

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Andrea and I talked a lot about how panic attacks are completely harmless, and simply the body’s fight or flight response. I had to train myself to believe and understand that having a panic attack doesn’t mean I need to ‘do’ anything – not even my belly breathing, which I had come to rely on too much – in fact, the best thing you can do during a panic attack is wait for it to pass. Easier said than done, of course.