I’ve had panic attacks on and off since I was a teenager. At times, my attacks have been so intense that I’ve been certain I was about to die—the fear inside me so raw and real it felt unbearable to be alive. Very often, my panic attacks (and fear of another one) have made it difficult for me to live my life. At times, I’ve even been terrified to leave my house.
But if you met me, you might never have guessed. I come across as “normal,” even-tempered, cheerful. In fact, many people have told me that I am a calming person to be around, and that I make them feel better and more relaxed. And yet, if I am in a period of my life where I am having panic attacks, I feel anything but normal or functional.
I think panic disorder is something very often misunderstood—sometimes even by panic sufferers themselves. And understanding the disorder is sometimes the first step to getting the help you need to feel better.
And listen up: help is definitely out there. You can end the cycle of panic.
I caught up with Dr. Samantha Rodman, a clinical psychologist in Maryland and founder of DrPsychMom.com, to help explain the disorder, and to clear up some common misconceptions about it. Ready? Here’s the scoop.
1. It’s common to feel like you’re “going crazy” when you’re having a panic attack. You’re not.
“Many people think that panic disorder means that they are ‘crazy,’ since it is so intense and so hard to function during an attack,” says Dr. Rodman. When you are in the midst of a panic attack, your thoughts speed up, whizzing and zooming all over the place. It may feel like you are going off the deep end, but it is just your fight-or-flight hormones coursing through your body, and messing with your thoughts. Remember that. You will be fine once the attack passes.
2. Panic disorder is different than general anxiety, but it’s possible to have them both.
Dr. Rodman explains that panic disorder has more distinct episodes, whereas disorders like general anxiety have a more global, continuous feel to them. “With other anxiety disorders, you have more constant anxious thoughts throughout the day, but not the same intense periods of physical symptoms,” explains Dr. Rodman. Of course, you can have both disorders at once (along with other mental health issues). Fun times, right?
3. Many sufferers keep their panic attacks secret because it’s embarrassing to feel so out of control.
This has been my experience, and was especially true when I first began having panic attacks as a teen. It was really hard to admit that I was feeling so broken and unable to control what was happening to me. That in and of itself was terrifying—and mortifying as well. Dr. Rodman says that this is actually quite common, and that many sufferers fear that they will be looked upon as “crazy” if they admit what is happening to them and that they are unable to make the attacks stop.
4. Panic attacks are a physical, visceral experience.
Panic attacks involve the fight-or-flight system in your body, and can make your heart race, your bowels churn, and your breathing rate increase. Some people have trouble breathing. Others become sweaty, dizzy, and faint. Many times, people experience the physical symptoms before they know that they are having a panic attack, and rush themselves to the emergency room fearing that they are having a heart attack or dying. The attacks really can be that intense.
5. You are not alone; panic disorder is more common than people realize.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 2-3% of the population suffers from panic attacks in any given year (which ends up amounting to millions of people), and women are twice as likely to suffer from them as men. The disorder usually emerges in a person’s 20s, but children can have it too. The point is, you are not alone and there is nothing strange or unusual about you. There are many people out there who “get it” and know how terrible and unbearable it can be.
6. Panic disorder can interfere with everyday life, and often goes hand-in-hand with agoraphobia.
Often, panic attacks begin in public places or specific situations. Because the experience is so horrible, the sufferer doesn’t want to go back to that place or enter that situation for fear of having another attack, thus resulting in a moderate to severe case of agoraphobia. It is understandable that this happens for many sufferers, but the problem is that this can make for a very limited life, and that isn’t good for anyone.
7. Panic disorder is very responsive to treatment.
Here’s maybe the most important thing you need to know about panic disorder: it’s treatable. Very much so. It may not seem like it, because it feels so out of your control. But therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy specifically, says Dr. Rodman), and medication (in some cases) can help a lot. I have personally found a daily meditation practice (even just five minutes a day) really helpful as well.
I will say this: the road to recovery isn’t easy. It takes effort, and a leap of faith, which is definitely hard to have when you feel like you will be doomed to have panic attacks forever. But trust me—that is not the case. And believing that there is no hope is just your anxiety trying to trick you into thinking that everything is irreparable and there is way out.
There is hope for panic disorder. You don’t have to suffer. You should have a chance to feel safe and confident as you move through the world, and live your life. You are amazing, and you deserve to feel whole and well.