I had my first panic attack in eighth grade. I was at a YMCA dance, when a boy came over during “Two Is Better Than One” by Boys Like Girls and held out his hand. Suddenly, the music seemed too loud, my chest tightened and I felt really nauseated. I ran out of the gym, hyperventilated and collapsed on the bathroom floor.
When I came around, my mom had arrived to pick me up. Driving home, I remember thinking “I am never going back there again.” and I didn’t. (In fact, I missed just about every dance at my high school, barely mustering up the courage to attend my prom.)
I had several episodes after that, mostly homework related. As a self-proclaimed overachiever, I struggled with my own perfectionism. I would spend countless hours on assignments and essays, insisting that every sentence be flawless to fulfill the unrealistic expectations I had set for myself.
In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, meaning I exhibit excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.
To clarify, generalized anxiety is NOT getting nervous or worked up about responsibilities and upcoming events, like, “I really have to study for this test!” That is referred to as the stress response (A.K.A. fight or flight response), which is the body’s way of motivating you to do what needs to be done.
Generalized anxiety IS the constant fear that the worst is about to happen, and feeling as though you are completely unable to cope. It is often characterized by “what if” thinking and neither prepares nor protects the worrier from what it is they fear. My incidents often followed the notion of inevitable failure: “If I don’t do well on this test, I will fail the course. If I fail the course, I won’t graduate. If I don’t graduate, I won’t go to university. If I don’t go university, I won’t get a job. If I don’t get a job, I’ll end up homeless.” These thoughts usually sparked a panic attack.
A panic attack is a sudden rush of physical symptoms — in my case, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, light-headedness and nausea — coupled with an uncontrollable sense of impending doom. It kind of feels like the elongated sensation of falling in a dream or the way your stomach lurches when you miss a step on the stairs. You can’t control the feeling and you don’t quite understand why you are reacting in such a way.
In my senior year, my anxiety became chronic and my attacks more frequent. I was always exhausted and moody. I withdrew from extra-curricular activities, friends and family.
It became apparent that my thoughts were not normal. I would cry over a mark of 89%, skip school to sleep and even stress over Twitter and Instagram, afraid to post a picture or tweet in fear of what people might think. (Now I’m a Social Media Community Manager… go figure!)
At its peak, the night before a Biology exam, I had a series of panic attacks that lasted 4 hours. My heart was beating so rapidly, my entire body was trembling and I temporarily lost vision in my left eye. Life didn’t seem worth living if it meant worrying all the time.
Finally, last summer, I underwent Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviours that sustain or trigger anxiety.
In simpler terms, the meanings we assign to a situation affect how we feel and act, not the situation itself. These meanings are not always accurate, realistic, or helpful. Negative thoughts lead to unpleasant emotions and unhelpful behaviours that maintain the problem. (For example, avoiding dances for 4 years.)
In 2013, Statistics Canada released survey results stating that one in four Canadians will have an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. The sickness is common and relevant, yet many who suffer feel they are alone.
Anxiety Disorders are one of the most common mental health concerns in Canada. They are also highly treatable. The following crisis survival strategies are concrete, tangible activities you can engage in when you find yourself under pressure:
1) Get physically or mentally active
Find things to do that require your full attention to keep you from dwelling on the bad. Work out, do yoga, read a book, write a poem, etc.
Fun Fact: 30 minutes of aerobic exercise is equivalent to taking an antidepressant.
2) Utilize relaxation techniques
Deep Breathing: Inhale. Exhale. Tell yourself it’s going to be okay. (Simple, yet effective.)
Mindfulness: Focus your attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment. For instance, if you are drinking coffee, focus on the smell, taste, warmth, etc.
Thought Diffusion: Visualize your thoughts, either as pictures or words, harmlessly floating away from you without obsessing or analyzing them. For example, see your thoughts written in sand and then watch the waves wash them away.
3) Energize your thinking
Use other thoughts to crowd your short-term memory. Count to 10; work a crossword, Sudoku or jigsaw puzzle; play Candy Crush, etc.
4) Seek powerful sensations
Strong physical sensations can interfere with the physiological component of your current negative emotion and short-circuit the emotional process. (I.e. Bite into an onion, wear a heat or ice pack, do push-ups, etc.)
5) Reach out
Share your problems with a friend or talk to a professional. Ryerson has counselling services on campus. Visit: http://www.ryerson.ca/counselling/If_You_are_in_Crisis.html for the Ryerson University Centre for Student Development and Counselling and other local resources. Heck, you can even reach out to us!
Mental health is not just the absence of a mental health disorder; it is a state of wellbeing. You don’t question whether or not to brush your teeth every morning? Why should taking care of your mind be any different?
This week, become informed, get involved and help shatter the stigma associated with mental illness.
If you are in crisis or dealing with a crisis situation, call 9-1-1 or the Gerstein Centre Distress Line 416-929-5200
Ryerson University Health Promotion has services for you, as well: call (416)-979-5000 ext. 4295.
Ryerson Mental Well Being www.ryerson.ca/mentalhealth
Ryerson Counselling Centre www.ryerson.ca/counselling
More resources: Good2Talk www.good2talk.ca 1-866-925-5454
Thought Spot mythoughtspot.ca