My Personal Battle with Anxiety and Panic Disorder

Thursday, December 06, 2018
Some people may not know this, but I have suffered from anxiety disorder for most of my life.  Anxiety took on a new form in my early 20s when I experienced my first panic attack while hanging out with friends at a house.  We were all talking and having a good time, when one of the roommates, who was a security guard, came home from work and started to clean his hand gun.  I didn't know I was having a panic attack, or even what a panic attack was, but I knew I had to leave before what I was experiencing was noticed by my friends--I did not want to appear "uncool", at least at that time in my life.  Not long after that evening, one of my close friends was killed in a traumatic, fiery car crash when his best friend fell asleep at the wheel.  A few months after his funeral, I realized I was experiencing severe anxiety and panic disorder around being a passenger--this is also known as amaxophobia.  It was really bad for many years, mostly impacting my first marriage, but then got better over time.  I still experience small flares, but it is nothing like it used to be in those years following my friend's death.  During this time, I also developed a panic disorder around dogs, experiencing my first dog-related panic attack while hiking the Eagle Creek Trail, a popular hike in the Columbia Gorge that winds along a river bed at high elevations.  This trail had many off-leash dogs that day, and I experienced a panic attack, which led to at least a decade of panic that had me walking into the street if there was a dog on the sidewalk.  I had panic attacks several times when dogs ran toward me at a park.  One time a dog in a coffee shop startled me so much that I dropped my coffee and started crying.  The owner of the dog scoffed at me, defensively trying to convince me that their dog would never hurt anyone, and didn't know what my problem was.  This made my anxiety even worse, as it was a reminder that my anxiety not only negatively impacted me, but others around me.


My panic attacks have taken on a new form this past year, where the anxiety that pulsates through my body is so intense that it feels like someone is choking me.  I feel like I'm going to die, and that I can't breathe.  It is terrible, and I suffer for many hours and even days after.  


I can tie back most of my anxiety triggers back to traumas that I experienced as a little girl.  Without going into specific details about my background, I can share that I had traumatic encounters with both guns and dogs in my childhood, and it was only after I had my first panic attacks as a young adult that realized I had a panic disorder.  This is so crazy to me, because I went through my childhood not knowing those experiences impacted me like they did until I encountered reminders of them as an adult and started having panic attacks.


I really dislike labels, and I remember even ten years after having panic attacks, when I heard the words "generalized anxiety disorder" from a therapist I started seeing during my divorce, it felt hard to accept.  I have accepted at this point that I struggle with anxiety and panic disorder, but in the past year or two, I've realized that I have most of the characteristics of a highly sensitive person (HSP).  I ran across a meme in social media awhile back that listed a few characteristics, and that was the first time I had even heard of HSP, or realized that I might find clarity about my anxiety if I better understood this part of myself.


You can click on the hyperlink above if you're interested to read more, but just know that I fit the profile, with the exclusion of sensitivity to others.  Through my academic career and nursing profession, I have curtailed many of these, as a big part of my job is giving and accepting feedback from others.  If I constantly worried what others were thinking, I wouldn't be successful in my career as a nurse.  Having said that, I almost 100% match in my sensitivity to self and environment.  


When I started traveling more after meeting my husband, who is Australian, I realized I had a new anxiety around crowds, especially when confined on a train or bus, but also just crowded intersections.  I started having so much anxiety to the point of almost having a panic attack in the middle of a crosswalk, where I would freeze up with so many people walking towards me (think downtown Seattle or Sydney).  It was my husband in those situations that has put his arm around me and kept me going.


I cannot begin to list all the times I have had panic attacks, but every one was triggered out of a fear of something I perceived as a threat or from being flooded by too many things at the same time.  When I experience anxiety and/or panic on this level, I become debilitated, unable to think logically.  I lose my focus, sense of well-being, and ability to make decisions.  I can't speak clearly, I become frozen, and time stands still.


Sometimes I find myself wondering why I was born this way.  Why I have to suffer like this almost daily.  For a lot of my life, I have not felt like I belonged in this world, the way it currently operates and functions.  I wish I could go back to a day where things were simpler, and what we opened and read, for example, was intentional, rather than part of a feed that I have no control over (i.e. Instagram, media sites, and Facebook).  There are times that news stories flash in front of my face that leave me with anxiety and nightmares for days.


I like to think that I could one day be 100% free from my anxiety disorder, but that would mean somehow unraveling my life history . . . all those traumas and insults to my brain that caused it to develop in the first place.  Also, it's not a disorder that evolved from only experiences, as there is most likely a genetic component to it, also.  This may be why some experiences have impacted me to the degree they have, while for others, they would have been able to move on without long lasting impact. 


And so this Capricorn finds peace and happiness where she can.  Gardening, hiking, spending time with friends, spending time with my children, with Adam, dreaming up new interior design for our 1955-Ranch, creating content for this blog, but always in the back of my mind is a fear that those happy times will be stolen from me by an unexpected trigger.  I refuse to isolate myself or resort to avoiding any situation that might increase my anxiety, because I want to live my life.  I just hope every day that I find a way through it, and that one day, it will not be a daily battle.

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