I wanted to share with you my history of anxiety and panic attacks, post traumatic distress disorder (PTSD), my depression and phobias and how I managed to beat the overwhelming terror and suffocation from these conditions. Hopefully you can find some ideas and inspiration if you too suffer from these debilitating conditions.
My Story in Brief
Yep I’m a sufferer of anxiety and I often suffocate under the weight of panic attacks, particularly when it relates to social events and circumstances. I’ve also had my fair share of despair with phobias having been treated for an overwhelming and totally irrational fear of moths, butterflies, bees and flies for over 30 years. To cap all that off, two years ago I developed situational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that took several sessions of treatment to become manageable. All this comes with a background of ep
isodic depression so yep, I know how having mental illness can destroy your self esteem, your confidence and your ability to manage your life like ‘normal’ people. But I’m pleased to say I do manage it all and for the most part, I cope fairly well. I’ll share how I do that later in this post but first let me explain a little about how each condition has affected my life.
My Anxiety and Panic Attacks
Very few people believe me when I say I suffer from panic attacks and anxiety. Everyone has always thought I’m a confident, socially comfortable woman who loves meeting and chatting with folks. That just shows you how clever I am at covering it up!
It all started in my teens when I began hating the idea of walking into a room, the pub, or any place, filled with people I didn’t know. At the time (and for many years afterwards) I just figured this was normal stress that everyone felt in new situations. I had my first panic attack in my early twenties, in a shopping centre car park. 30 years later and I still don’t know what triggered that either. It wasn’t till a few years later when the anxiety escalated that I realised this was getting serious. Over the last 10 years, my panic attacks escalated and now frequently occur not just when entering almost any social situation but even at the thought of attending a social event regardless of whether the people there are friends or strangers. My brain starts talking to me (I call it my ‘panic speak’) and tells me that I can’t cope with this situation at all and that I have to get out of wherever I am or face certain death and destruction.
These attacks have stopped me going to many friends’ parties and celebrations. They stop me attending conferences and training events as well as a variety of spiritual events that occur within my religious community. In truth, it’s the fear of the attacks that does the major damage and that fear is pretty overpowering!
I don’t know what the catalyst was for my phobia. I’ve never really worked that out but regardless of it’s genesis, it was DEVASTATING in its early years. It started over 35 years ago in my late teens and within a year had developed into a full blown phobia that kept me pinned inside the house suffocated by fear.
It annoys the heck out me when people say something like “Oh I have a phobia of spiders” but their lives are ‘normal’ except for when they see a spider (or whatever other subject they might have mentioned). That’s a fear and it’s a valid fear for them but it’s not a phobia. A phobia is when you eat, sleep and live your fear every day. Every waking and sleeping moment is devoured by overwhelming terror and panic at the prospect of your phobia subject. The phobia becomes not just terror at the subject but terror of the panic you feel when confronted by that subject. In other words, you become terrified of the terror.
I can recall many a time when I was trapped under the table because there was a fly in the kitchen or when I had to hide in a cupboard because there was a moth in the bedroom. On those occasions, I couldn’t even scream incase the moth got into my mouth. It was sheer, overwhelming and total terror. I couldn’t hang the washing out because there were “things” out there. I could never eat an icecream outside at the beach because a bee was absolutely bound to want my ice cream. I reckon every bee, fly, moth and butterfly knew where I was every minute of the day and I had a big target painted on me that they simply had to touch base with!
The final straw, and the moment when I realised the phobia was dangerous, was when I had no choice but to leave my four month old first born on a change mat, on top of his change table, and run from the room because a sleepy little bee crawled out of the jump suit I was dressing him into. I’ll never forget the conflicting terror and horror I felt between knowing I had left my son in a position where he could fall off the change table and be hurt versus the utter panic that the bee welled up in me. While that moment stands out as one of utter terror, it’s also the moment I’m most grateful for because it was the catalyst to seek recovery.
My PTSD Experience
My PTSD was something that could have stalled my nursing career completely. It was only my sheer, bloody minded determination to get through the remainder of my degree that helped me overcome the overwhelming fear and panic that the PTSD generated.
My PTSD was situational and developed from a traumatic incident that happened to me in a teaching simulation laboratory at my university during an assessment that went tragically wrong. I won’t bore you with what actually happened during the assessment but suffice to say it left me deeply emotionally and psychologically scarred and in fact my experience was the reason the university changed it’s assessment terminology, processes and some staff.
The result of the experience was that I couldn’t go into that laboratory without melting into a total panic attack with all its usual crying, shortness of breath, shaking and overwhelming terror. The very thought of entering the room sent my mind and body into complete panic so that for days before any laboratory assessment I’d be racked with not just ‘normal’ assessment stress, but also panic and terror of the room itself. While it would have been easy to say that all I needed to do was not go into the laboratory again, the fact was that the university used the simulation laboratory for formal assessments. I had no choice, I had to enter the room for assessments or fail my degree.
I’ve had depression on and off since I was a teenager. I think the first really big bout of it was post natal depression after the birth of my first child. I remember that being so debilitating. Here was this gorgeous little man that I utterly adored but all I wanted to do was sleep and hibernate… not just because of normal post birth exhaustion but because I couldn’t face the world and it lasted for, not just a few weeks, but for months.
Since then I’ve had depression on and off for more than 30 years. The first few times, it took me far too long to realize what was happening. It’s harder to pull out of depression when you leave it too long, believe me! I’ve learnt that lesson the hard way. One of my darkest days resulted in my trying to commit suicide. I simply couldn’t face one more minute ,of one more hour, of one more day, any more. I’ll never forget what absolute surrender to depression and death feels like. I never want to go there again.
When the darkness creeps up on me now, I can usually recognise the symptoms now. I recognise my increasing need for solitude, for isolation and my changing views on my own capabilities. I recognise the changes in my eating patterns, the nightmares, the slow sinking feeling that masks every moment of every day. I hate when I can feel those changes happening but after 35 years, I now jump on the symptoms before they swallow me whole and drag me down into the never-ending depths of dark surrender.
For me, recovery from each of these mental illness conditions was different, and I suspect for every person, recovery (if you’re lucky enough to have full recovery) for their conditions will be different too. What I do know now though is that there is an opportunity for recovery but that responsibility for that lays squarely in my lap. I also think recovery is not a destination, but a journey. It’s something I need to tap back into if symptoms rear their head and its evolving continually as I learn new techniques as well.
For my anxiety, panic attacks and the PTSD, my ‘go to’ treatment is always a gentle yet incredibly helpful herbal assault. As a qualified naturopath, I have a whole dispensary at my disposal so I’ve had the luxury of trying different professional herbal medications to see what works best for me. I prefer Saffron as a means of controlling the background anxiety that never goes away. That does a great job of calming me and melting the low level anxiety away. When I need the big guns, Kava, at professional medication dose, is still my personal best option. It calms my body and brain enough that I can begin the rational self talk that stops the panic speak. With the Kava on board, I can relax enough to get my brain into gear, to slow my panicked breathing and heart rate and stop that flight or fight response. I can begin the process of talking to myself with positivity and encouragement and get back on an even keel again.
I’ve also tried the Emotional Freedom Technique (commonly known as ‘Tapping’) and that’s a great way to calm me back down too. Its an easy to use technique that emulates acupuncture but without using needles. I also love the alternative nasal breathing technique as a means of calming my breathing and heart rate and making my brain focus on something other than the panic speak and the rising terror.
For my panic attacks and PTSD, I also use cognitive and behavioural therapies. I was blessed to find a psychologist and counselor who were skilled in this field and together they gave me tools that helped tremendously. I learnt how to stop the panic speak and counter that with a more calming, positive self talk script. I admit that it took a fair bit of practice and determination to use my script instead of running for the hills but I’m glad I persisted. I also learnt other behavioural tools too. Like in the middle of a panic attack, learning to look at my hand and focus on the little wrinkles or the shape of my nails or how my veins run through the tissue under my skin. The idea is that by focusing on something simple like your hand or the colour of the wall, or the shape of your shoe, you distract your brain and the panic speak long enough to calm your mind and body.
My phobia and the depression episodes took a wee bit longer to overcome and manage. For my phobia, I had a year of therapy, the first six months of which had to be in my own home because leaving the house and exposing myself to flies, moths, butterflies and bees outside was overwhelming on most days. I underwent gradual desensitisation therapy and while it was harrowing at the time, it did the trick eventually. I’ll never be fully ‘cured’ of my phobia, I don’t think anyone ever is in fact, but I can manage my responses in most situations now so that I don’t look like a total plonker who’s absolutely lost the plot. I still avoid situations where I know I’ll be exposed to moths and I still could never go into the butterfly house at the zoo for example. I still have a mini panic attack if a moth or butterfly surprises me, particularly if I’m also tired or stressed but my daily life is no longer 100% consumed by thoughts about my phobia subject. These days I also use my cognitive and behavioural tools to calm me back down again if the panic speak creeps in unexpectedly.
As I mentioned earlier, when I recognise the early symptoms of depression, I jump on the treatment wagon immediately. I’ve tried St John’s Wort and lots of herbal depression treatments but I’ve found the best option for me is a mainstream antidepressant medication like sertraline. This is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and is one of the more gentle, yet highly effective mainstream medications that has minimal side effects. I also take vitamin D supplements and try and get a few minutes in the sunshine each day, again to boost my vitamin D. Vitamin D is a pre-curser to serotonin so that’s a great way of helping your bodies own chemistry realignment. I personally don’t find exercise helpful in battling depression unlike many others but my few moments out in the sunshine each day often includes just a small walk or some way to spiritually connect with nature and restore some calmness.
Am I Healthy Today?
All those treatment options, all my years of life experience and my healthcare experience, both mainstream and complimentary, should mean I never suffer from any of my conditions anymore right? Wrong!
I still have panic attacks, I still occasionally sink towards depression, I still know that a moth, butterfly, bee or fly could slam me into a full on terror episode at any time but… (yep, there’s always a “but”) I also know that none of this means it’s the end of my world anymore.
I can manage my day like any ‘normal’ person can because I know I have tools to use when this stuff rears its ugly head. I’ve accepted that my brain is wired a little differently than most people and in fact I’m so grateful for my experiences because they’ve given me the ability to empathise with others so much more. I fully understand now how different people are from one another and how important patience is when someone behaves differently than I expect. While these conditions have been my curse, they’ve also been one of the greatest gifts the universe shared with me. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Do you suffer in the weight of depression, anxiety and panic attacks, PTSD or a phobia? What tools and treatments have you used to help you manage your condition? Please post your comment below and share your story.
Please note, the treatments I use work for me and may not work for you. Please seek medical advice before taking any drugs, herbs or preparations.