An honest account of my panic attacks and the fear of death

“Ooh, this sounds extremely dark for my taste” – don’t worry, I feel the same. I never really wanted to talk about this quite difficult era in my life, but what made me explain it to you nevertheless, dear reader, is the fact that I’m bumping into more and more people who live through the same thing. And I’m not talking about random strangers or people on the Internet: I’m talking about my actual friends, some of my closest, to be honest. And it made me think: if I don’t have to look too hard to find people who have thoughts surprisingly similar to me, how many people could actually share these thoughts with me? I’m pretty sure that the number is way, way higher than someone would ever imagine.

And that is the point of this essay: I always thought that I’m peculiar with my problem. This must be a special case, I thought. I must be the only one, or at least the member of a very, very small group of people who go through the same exact thing as I do. Turns out, I was wrong. And I just recently realized this fact (in the past one or two years, since my actual panic disorder “disappeared”); as I was casually talking to some of my closest friends, at least three of them, separately from each other, brought up the same thing in these conversations: that sometimes they experience these dreadful, quite inexplicable moments in their everyday lives. Suddenly they feel terrified, they feel the world is empty and old, they almost feel dead. And there is, even more surprisingly, a common thought that always leads to these terrifying moments – but that part comes later in this essay. Now I want to give an account of my own panic attacks, moments that made my life in the past years (or even decade) quite difficult. And my main and honest goal is to show people, maybe even you yourself, dear reader, that people who go through this are not alone. In fact, there are more of us than me or you could’ve ever imagined.

I experienced my very first panic attack at a very young age. I don’t remember when exactly, but I must’ve been at least 6 and not more than 9 years old. So, around that time, I was sitting in my bed and suddenly felt quite afraid. Terrified is a more suitable word, I think, I felt the worst fear I ever experienced in my life. I was actually fearing for my life. I got up from the bed very quickly, stood up in my room and started crying. My parents ran in and asked me what happened. And I didn’t tell them. I was ashamed of it for some reason, which I can’t really explain, even today. I told them that I accidentally hit my elbow in the door and I even pointed out where exactly, just to be more convincing. I think they believed me, although the perspective of a young child can be a misleading one. Still, we never brought up that scene again.

Years passed and I didn’t have an attack like this for a while. I cannot give you a detailed account of the date of my panic attacks, especially because at the time I had no idea that these were panic attacks, but in the upcoming years, when I was between 11 and 18 every year or two years I experienced the same thing occasionally. And I have to tell you: these were the absolute worst moments in my life so far. And this is were I have to turn very honest, because so far I was reluctant to explain what the main reason for these attacks were. I think it’s easier if I get it out now, so that the rest of this essay can make sense: the main reason I experienced very harsh panic attacks is because I was afraid of death.

What I realized while talking to some of my friends is that they all experience this type of fear one time or another. I remember that the way this feeling worked was a very peculiar one – that’s why I never thought anyone else would share it with me. But some of my friends’ account of the same feeling were so uncannily similar to what I felt, that I had to face the truth, which is that I am not, in fact, alone in this.

So, what is this feeling like and how does it work?

I realize that some of you may have great difficulty reading about this, so if you want to stop reading now, I don’t blame you. I was in the same exact state for a few years, and I know exactly how it works. As doctors and psychologists would surely tell you, having a panic attack in a certain place, at a certain time, in a certain situation can put a stigma on that place/situation forever. You will try to avoid getting into that same scenario in the future, because you’re afraid that you will get a panic attack again. And you don’t want to do that. So that’s why I was pretty much avoiding discussing this thing for years. Talking or even reading about it made me feel really, really anxious, and sometimes it directly resulted in another attack. So, once again, if you’d feel better not reading about this now, you should stop reading and do something else. For the rest of you, here’s what it was:

This feeling was an absolutely terrifying fear of death. Not death or dying itself, to be honest, but the fear of not existing anymore. That detail is a peculiar one that I happen to share with these aforementioned friends of mine. They all explained the same exact thing to me: sometimes they thought about the future, the very far future, how they will die sometime and not be anymore, and in that moment they snapped. They started to feel the classic symptoms of a panic attack. That is the same thing that always happened to me. And to make it even more absurd, the whole feeling had a very cosmic quality to it. As someone very interested in cosmology, astrology and physics, I was always reading about the Universe, our planet, the Solar System, etc. And I always knew a lot about – as Wikipedia puts it – “the ultimate fate of the Universe”. The knowledge of irreversible cosmic events and catastrophes was a huge burden to bear. It actually still is, although, as I said, I’m quite over my panic disorder now (or, at least, I hope).

Every panic attack I had was a direct consequence of me thinking about the future of mankind, our planet, the Sun and the Universe itself. In a hundredth of a second, in my mind, I travelled to the outer skirts of the Universe and I also travelled tens of billions of years in the future. I think my mind just couldn’t handle it and simply snapped. I literally felt that I was falling out of existence. I suddenly felt that reality around me was just a memory, and I felt outside of everything. I belonged to a huge, empty void with no light and sound in it and the world around me (usually my bedroom but sometimes the shower or, unfortunatley, a public place) didn’t exist anymore.

This is actually the worst feeling I have ever felt, and I will be surprised if anything surpasses this feat. And when I was experiencing these attacks every one or two years, I never realized that these were actual medical phenomena. How would’ve I known? It wasn’t until later, when I was 18 or 19, that I developed a panic disorder.

According to Wikipedia (I always trust Wikipedia, just so you know)

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurring panic attacks, causing a series of intense episodes of extreme anxiety during panic attack.

What it means is that, unlike a panic attack which can occur as a “single event” in your life, or maybe a few times in the course of a year or a few years, a panic disorder is when you experience wild panic attacks in a very short time. And that is what happened to me – if I remember well, I had this disorder for more than one year.

I remember how it started, and it wasn’t a pleasent experience. In fact, it was so terrifying that you will surely think I’m overexaggerating it. As I said, I was around 19. I was attending a choir rehearsal with my family (we all went to the same choir that time), when, for no reason in particular, I started thinking about these things again. And then, of course, a panic attack hit me, but it was the most violent one I have felt so far (and ever since). At the end of the rehearsal I started crying quite uncontrollably. My mother was quite shocked to see this happening to me, but she (or we) didn’t realize what this was. As we were going home it was impossible to calm down for me. Quite the contrary, I was feeling worse and worse. My sobbing wouldn’t cease and my mind was quite somewhere else – somewhere in the most darkest corners of the Universe, sometime in the terrifyingly distant future. As we were waiting for the metro to arrive – and as my mother realized that I will not be able to take the metro in this state – she asked me what the problem was. I think she was also crying, probably out of desperation to see her child be like this. And at that moment, for the first time in my life, I gave the honest answer to that question.

I don’t want to die.

At that moment my mother realized that this problem was beyond her skills to fix. I’m not sure how I survived that night (I remember watching Heat from Michael Mann later that night, and for some reason it calmed me down. Funny.), but the next day we went to visit a therapist. She was the one who explained to me that I’m showing the classic symptoms of a panic disorder.

The next year (or few years) of my life were quite difficult. What this disorder meant was that I was experiencing panic attacks (though not as harsh as the “original”) at least every week. My everyday life was overshadowed by these attacks, to say the least. In fact, I was quite paralyzed by them. I’m not sure how I got through my everday life (I was attending school, for example, and I don’t remember having an attack in class), but every moment I spent home was beyond depressing. I distinctly remember the feeling of not being comfortable with anything. Sitting in a soft chair or sofa didn’t give me any comfort at all whatsoever. I always felt uneasy. But that was the least of my problems, because the major part of it was that I always, always felt immeasurably sad.

I was afraid of upcoming attacks, but at the same time I was still very much afraid of the original thought, you know, the thought of death. I always felt it around me, I could never get it out of my head. Not once. Watching TV, using my computer, walking on the streets, I was always thinking about that same thing. It was actually like one elongated panic attack.

There came a time when I could never sleep at anyone else’s place. I could only sleep in my bedroom, and whenever someone invited me over their place for any reason, I just had to refuse. Obviously I never told them why. I still felt quite ashamed for this whole thing, I was trying to hide it very hard. To be honest, sometimes even my closest friends or family members didn’t prove too helpful. Although I never explained to them in this great a detail (I never could, you see, because then I would’ve immediately develop an attack), but they knew I was having this problem. Still, sometimes even they couldn’t cope with how reluctant I was to spend a day somewhere else other than my own bed.

My therapist helped me to cope with these attacks, though. She taught me this very simple technique of taking big, slow breaths when I felt an attack approaching. Doing this results in your soon-to-be-elevated pulse slowing down, thus avoiding the upcoming attack. You see, these panic attacks have a quite “simple” mechanism: for whatever reason (in my case, my fear of death) your body initiates the “Fight or flight” response. It is a reflex common in highly developed animals (mammals, I suppose, maybe even animals lower in the scale of evolution). When in danger, the body of animals initiates this response by releasing a huge amount of adrenaline in their blood, which results in high pulse, anxiety and panic. What this does is that it makes the said animal have a very quick and agressive response to a dangerous situation and the animal, thus, either makes an attack in self-defense or flees from the danger. This response exists in humans as well because of its benefits – but the thing is that humans don’t really have to face the dangers of Nature. So even though science is not entirely sure why panic attacks occur in people, we can safely say that the “Fight or flight” response is quite the unnecessary reflex to have in certain situations.

When having a panic attack, your body initiates the response. The incoming adrenaline elevates your pulse to high levels and you’re starting to feel terrified – just like an animal cornered by a predator. But if you delibaretly start to take these huge, slow breaths and start to focus on your pulse (you can feel your pulse just to help the process), your heartbeat will slow down quite quickly, and after the panic goes away (because it actually does!) you will start to feel really good. Since my panic disorder ceased to be “active” (I didn’t experience a fully grown panic attack for at least 4 years now), sometimes I could feel an attack approaching, but thanks to this technique I was able to avoid it. It worked for me in the past years really well. I urge you to try it next time you’re starting to feel bad.

Having a panic attack is one of the worst things a person can experience. And developing a panic disorder is beyond bad – there’s no word in the English language I could use here to describe it with. The reason I’ve written this all down is because in the past few years I realized that I was not alone with my problem. And I don’t mean panic attacks in general – many people experience attacks or a disorder, I’m not oblivious to that. But what I realized was that many people experience these attacks as a consequence of the same exact thoughts I had. The same thoughts about existence, death, the Universe and the future. And, once again, I wonder how many people share these thoughts with me, or with “us”. I didn’t want to cause uncomfortable moments for anyone with this essay – all I wanted to do is give some comfort to people that they are not alone. Not at all. This problem, this feeling you have is real. And it can be a medical emergency. If you ever experience something resembling an attack, or a full grown attack, don’t hesitate to talk to someone about it. And I know it can be difficult, difficult to go on about your worst fears and thoughts. It is not easy at all. In fact, I left my therapy sessions for the same reason: I just felt uncomfortable talking about the whole thing. But what you should never experience is the worsening of this situation. It should never develop into a panic disorder.

One of the most memorable qualities of this state of mind was the feeling that I will never be able to resolve it. I felt that with these thoughts I will never be able to be “healthy” again, because to the questions raised in me (about life, death, etc.) there is no good answer. Because, to put it very simply, we are all going to die. And I always felt that I will never be able to reconcile with this fact. And I know that many of you feel the same. You are confident that there is no resolving to this problem of yours, because you may or may not experience a panic attack, but the thoughts behind them will be there forever. Mainly because these thoughts deal with eternal problems. Problems every human in history had to face, or will face eventually. But what you have to realize that, sursprisingly, once the attacks cease to come, and the disorder goes away, you never really think about this thing for a while. And after a few years, maybe you will start to think about it, but in a wholly different manner. Right now I can talk about death and the Universe as much as I want, because I don’t feel threatened by the implications of these things. I honestly think I actually purged myself of these horrible feelings. Maybe not for good – maybe they will come back eventually, I cannot be sure. But at this moment I am very confident that I am alright now. And so you should be.

Experiencing a panic attack is normal. A lot of people do. Being afraid of anything is normal. Most people are afraid of something. That is how humans work in general. But don’t let anything cripple your way of life. If you feel threatened by your thoughts, if you feel paralyzed by anything you ever felt or thought, seek help. Because, quite possibly, people around you experienced the same thing as you do now. And you will never be alone in this.

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