Eighteen months ago, I barely left my house except to go to school or work. I couldn’t go to a store, restaurant, church, a sporting event, or a crowded place without a panic attack. At home I was lying in a corner, covered in blankets, lost inside my head, jumping and shrieking at every noise, and even twitching or convulsing.
I’m better now. I am more social and can go many places, though places that are loud or crowded still trigger panic.
It’s been an intense struggle to deal with these panic attacks. But things are finally getting better.
What is helping? Well I am building a set of techniques to deal with panic attacks. But there are 11 overall strategies that are helping me recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia:
- Being gracious to myself. After I had a panic attack, I would beat myself up for “failing” again. Beating myself up for panic attacks made the panic worse, the anxiety worse, and my self esteem lower. I gradually am learning how to be kinder to myself when I have a panic attacks. I try to remove the blaming and self-condemnation. I have a mental illness.
- “Leaving the shopping cart at the store.” My counselor likes to tell me a story of a woman who is in a shopping line at a crowded grocery store, with a full cart of groceries. As she waits in line her panic builds higher and higher. She doesn’t want to leave her groceries but knows she’s on the edge of a panic attack. My counselor tells me, “Leave the groceries. Take care of yourself. Your health is more important.” I used to force myself to suffer through situations that were triggering panic, eventually having a panic attack. But now if I can feel the panic starting and know an attack will be following, I leave. It’s not worth suffering later.
- Taking one day at a time. It’s frustrating to look back at the hundreds of panic attacks I have had over the past year and a half. Each one is a small traumatic memory. But I just try to take one day at a time and live in the moment. When I have a panic attack, I tell myself, tomorrow is a new day, things will be better tomorrow. Often they are.
- Giving myself time. I keep reminding myself, recovering from panic disorder can take a while. These problems don’t change overnight. It has been hard not feeling like “myself” for a year and a half, but some mental issues require time to heal. Giving myself time takes some pressure off, and helps me recover quicker.
- Working as a team with my partner. Communicating and strategizing with my husband has helped me immeasurably. My battle with panic disorder affects him daily. So if I’m going to lick this, it needs to be a team effort, or it’s never going to work. We keep having conversations about how to manage everything.
- Confessing to others about the panic attacks. For a while I was making all sorts of excuses for my behavior. I would tell people I was sick, tired, or busy when I cancelled plans or had to leave somewhere quickly. But all of the evasion and vague lies started to get to me. I couldn’t remember who I told which thing to. The secrecy was weighing on me along with the panic. I hated feeling dishonest. So I finally started being brave and telling people the truth: I was having panic attacks. It scary to be known, but also liberating. People have been more understanding than I expected.
- Continuing “safe” activities. Due to the panic attacks I was spending all my time at home resting. But there are some activities I was able to do, even on my worst days. For example, even on my worst days I could go for a drive in my car and listen to music or meet up with a friend for coffee at a quiet coffee shop. Forcing myself to still do safe things on my bad days kept me from completely isolating. As I am recovering, the number of “safe” activities grows.
- Focusing on the “me” things, not the obligations. As I started to get better, I felt like I should gather my resources to attend the “important” events, like family reunions, a work party, a baby shower or holiday event. But these types of events often triggered a severe panic attack and setback. Instead of gathering my energy to go to a difficult but “important” event, I have been avoiding those “important” events and going to the “me” events instead. “Me” events are things that I loved to do before the panic attacks started. Finding ways to participate in my old hobbies/interests gives me confidence, brings me happiness, and helps me connect to my former healthy self. For example, before the panic attacks I loved going to concerts. I still can’t handle going to rock concerts, but I can go to a quiet acoustic concert. I feel more like “me” again and gain confidence.
- Modifying activities instead of avoiding them. So maybe I can’t go to a rock concert or sporting event right now, but I can go to a coffee shop that has live music, or watch a few people casually playing basketball at the park. Or I can go to a sporting event but decide in advance that I will only stay half an hour, and then leave. It helps me feel like myself to participate in these events. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
- “Pretending” to be my old self. “Pretending” is a private thing I do. I’ll be at home alone and I’ll pretend to myself that I’m better. I’ll practice walking around and talking like I used to. I’ll listen to the music and watch the TV shows I used to enjoy when I was well. This helps me reconnect to my former self.
- Communicating my needs to others. As I withdrew more and more, my friends didn’t know how to support me. I’ve been letting my husband and friends know how they can support me during this time. Having their support helps me greatly.
It has been rough trying to recover from panic disorder and agoraphobia. But things are gradually getting better. I believe someday I will recover, with all of this a distant memory.
Image by Felipe P. Lima Rizo on unsplash.com.