Panic attacks can happen to anyone. They are not fun. I used to hate them with every fibre of my being. But after a few years of psychotherapy and medications, I’ve learnt how to deal with them, treat them like a friend, and sometimes even, see it as a strength. Of course, this new mindset did not come easy and is not always the case for those with similar diagnoses. Everyone experiences it differently and has their own set of triggers and coping mechanisms.
Types of Anxiety:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
- Panic Disorder
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
I was clinically diagnosed with Panic Disorder & agoraphobia (fear of being in places where escape is difficult). Panic disorder, in short, is a chronic fear of having a panic attack… which only leads to (yes, ironically) more panic attacks. In those moments, our brain puts ourselves into a “fight or flight” mode. For me, that translates to very bad nausea, palpitations, and difficulty regulating my breathing. I get hypersensitive and over-stimulated – like every colour is screaming into my eyes and noise is filling my head. Sometimes my legs would tremble. It feels like I could die at any moment, and my headspace is all crammed up. It feels absolutely terrible and I spent far too much time worrying when the next one would occur. Most of the time though, you would not be able to physically see it happening.
I had my first panic attack when I was 9. I had a very intimidating teacher for a particular class and was so scared that I started having symptoms just before those classes started. Back then, mental illness was still very much a taboo. My parents did not acknowledge it and only proceeded to switch my classes. But it popped back up again more frequently at a later age nearing my prelim exams in Secondary Four. The pressure I had put on myself, and the fear that I would panic during the exam did not do well for me. Luckily, I had this very kind teacher, Miss Vivian Tan, who found me mid panic attack and helped me through the phase. She gave me my first coping mechanism – having a sweet. It preoccupied my mind and gave me something to focus on.
However, the next time the attacks became frequent again was in Junior College. I can still remember how scared my friend looked when he saw me fight through a panic attack. I could not write during the exams. The words were swimming in front of me and the nausea was so bad. I had to tell myself, “Just keep writing! One more paragraph! Come on!” Clearly, it was affecting my studies. That was when I started to hate myself and my disorder. I got so angry whenever a panic attack stopped me from achieving something. I was this high-functioning student who was captain, class representative, who used to top the class and win medals. There was no way I could have this! So, I saw the school counsellor. She gave me a few more coping mechanisms: structured breathing, wearing a rubber band on my wrist and pulling slightly, and having my own ‘first-aid kit’. For me, this ‘kit’ consisted of isotonic water, Vicks, sweets, and a plastic bag in case I ever fell victim to the nausea. I bring this ‘first-aid kit’ everywhere with me now. More importantly though, she knew my parents were still not open to mental illnesses and gave me other resources to turn to since getting medical help was not an option for parental-consent-needing 17-year-old me. She introduced me to CHAT (Community Health Assessment Team) that caters to 16-30 year olds. I only approached them two years later after accepting the fact that I was struggling immensely despite seeing school counsellors. Admittedly, it was tough getting over the present social stigma and realising that I really needed help. The last straw was when I had to alight every two stops while on the MRT, just so I could breathe a little. Imagine how long it took for me to travel! I simply could not live like that.
So it was CHAT that gave me free referral and subsidies to a psychiatrist at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. There, I was clinically diagnosed and treated as an outpatient. I also learnt that I had other symptoms such as fluctuating appetites and sleeping problems. Treatment started with weekly sessions of psychotherapy and medications. I was on an anti-depressant that would tackle the imbalance of certain neurotransmitters in my brain affecting my mood, and did a lot of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with my therapist. Some sessions were extra hard – I had to fight with a lot of inner demons, cried, and restructured my way of thinking. Some sessions were very calming as we practised breathing, thought exercises, and self-affection. But all of them were extremely insightful and I learnt so much. I understood my triggers and learnt to recognise them earlier. After a while, my sessions started to spread out more–from fortnightly to monthly to every three months. Finally, after 2.5 years, my therapist was confident that I could handle myself well, and they waned me off my medications. Here are some things that I do:
- controlled breathing (this takes practice!)
- writing (all my thoughts become poems or prose)
- going to my mental ‘safe place’
- soothing touches (rubbing my arms etc.)
- positive affirmations (reminding myself that I’m doing good)
- comfort myself like how I would comfort a friend (why do we always treat our friends kinder?)
Now I can take the train without any trouble and it is all because of the new mindset I developed, and the coping mechanisms that I have. That being said, a panic attack still crops up once in a blue moon. I do not believe anyone fully recovers or stops having anxiety altogether. It is, after all, human. We just learn how to better live with it, and know that it is okay.
If a friend ever experiences a panic attack, be there for them; ask them what they need; be patient; try to remind them that they are safe with you.
Keep a lookout for our next post on OCD, as well as an interview with Mental Health Professionals as we commemorate Mental Health Day this month.
Written by Lydia Yasmin
Illustrations by Lim Daphne