The panic of losing control

Galen Eye Centre

Learning to be open about my experiences with panic attacks

Sarina with supportive friends

The last time it happened was on the night of September 26, around 10:30pm. 

I was going about my business at home when I was hit with a sudden feeling of intense fear. I knew what was coming, so I quickly said goodnight to my housemate — at a time noticeably earlier than when I usually call it a night — went into my bedroom, and locked the door. 

I sat down on my bed and felt a wave of dizziness. My throat closed up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart was pounding, my body was shaking and I was immobile, frozen in position as I struggled and failed to concentrate on slowing down my breathing. 

I was in the midst of another panic attack. 

When I finally felt myself calm down, I eventually checked my phone. Although it felt like an eternity, only 14 minutes had gone by. The worst part was, I didn’t know why it had happened. 

A panic attack is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a “sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” 

I’ve been experiencing panic attacks for almost two years now. They happen sporadically — I once went two months without it happening. It once happened three times in one week. Sometimes they’re short and sometimes they last a long time. Sometimes I could tell you exactly why I think one happened. 

But most of the time, I can’t explain anything. 

As someone who likes to have my days planned out, who values control over her life, this hasn’t been an easy issue for me to deal with. Not having an explanation for my panic attacks meant I had no way of remedying the problem, and it wasn’t something that sat well with me — it still doesn’t. 

I hated that one day I was having a normal day at work when I felt it coming, and had to take a longer-than-appropriate bathroom break as a result. I struggled with the fact that I once had a great night out with my housemates, only to succumb to an attack in the darkness of my bedroom later that night. 

I can’t plan for them, I can’t avoid them, and I have no say in how long they last. 

According to various mental health and medical publications, researchers still don’t know exactly why panic attacks occur. Sometimes they have a root cause or trigger, sometimes they don’t. I’ve probably scoured through articles from every major mental health organization and research institution about why they occur and how to deal with them, only to find there’s several factors that come into play.

When it happens you’re advised to practice relaxation and calm your breathing. From what I’ve read, therapy and medication have been suggested. 

But it’s easier said than done.

When I’m struggling to breathe and I feel like I’m drowning, focusing on my breathing is the hardest possible thing to do. But I think the biggest struggle I’ve had has been admitting it — to doctors, to the people around me and most of all, to myself. 

When it first happened in March of 2016, I tried to brush it off as a freak occurrence. That was easy enough to do. 

Between various extracurricular activities, my job and classes, it wasn’t hard to distract myself and pretend it never happened. My default reaction when I’m struggling with anything is to throw myself fully into whatever tasks I have to get done, so I can block things out of my mind, and that time was no different. 

But after it happened a few more times between early March and the end of that school year, I could no longer delude myself into thinking I didn’t have a problem.

It took me a while to finally speak to a doctor about it, and I only finally saw a physician about a year later. He explained to me his belief that my panic attacks were happening because of my tendency to internalize my stresses. 

Whether he’s correct or not, I still don’t know, but internalizing my problems is something I’ve fallen into a bad habit of doing for years now, and changing that takes time. He booked me a psychiatrist appointment for September 6, so that I could maybe get to the bottom of it and face the problem head-on. On September 5, I cancelled that appointment, and have yet to rebook it. Maybe I will. But maybe I won’t. 

I’ve always prided myself on being able to handle many things at once. I have a reputation amongst my friends as being mostly unaffected by stress and as a person of high energy. 

One of my biggest fears has always been that admitting to having these attacks would shatter that image. It’s one that I value more than what’s probably reasonable, but that I’ve held onto nonetheless — as long as other people saw me as capable and headstrong, I would remain that way. 

I initially embraced a kind of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ mentality about my issue: if I could pretend it wasn’t happening long enough and if I didn’t talk about it, then it would eventually go away. I didn’t tell my family, I didn’t tell my friends or housemates — no one knew, up until a couple days before I decided to write this. 

Close to two years since my first panic attack, I’ve finally accepted that my way of thinking needs to change. I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed about them — for me, it was more that admitting to them openly meant saying that I lack control over my life in a significant way. 

It means admitting there are times I don’t feel full of energy. That there are times where I feel like I’m completely losing it, and when these attacks occur, I kind of shut down: sometimes for half an hour, sometimes for several hours. The after-effects of my panic attacks often make me feel irritable, drained, tired and a bit hopeless. 

But I’m learning that that’s okay. 

I started to think more and more about why I felt the need to keep it from the people around me for so long, and I saw why it wasn’t good for me. Talking about my own problems has never been my strong suit, and it was definitely a gradual process; it took me over a year and a half to be able to talk about it, but I’ve finally gotten there. 

I still hesitated to write this article. A friend of mine told me if I was going publish a piece about my panic attacks, it meant being okay with anybody knowing. My friends, coworkers, peers and even my brother who goes to this school — all people who don’t know as I’m writing this right now. For a lot of people, that kind of public exposure might not be a big deal, but for me, it’s been terrifying to consider. But she also said that she thought I knew what I wanted to do: I just had to do it.  

So, here we are. I’m Sarina. I experience panic attacks on an irregular but constant basis. I don’t usually know why they occur, and I have no control over when they’ll happen next. I hate the fact that they happen to me, and they terrify me each and every time they do.  

But almost two years later, I’ve learned to accept that this is one area of my life I can’t completely control. It’s no longer a secret to keep behind closed doors. 

I can talk about it. 

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