Coping with Panic Attacks: A Personal Story

A drawing made by participants at a ThriveNYC mental health first aid session (Screen shot from video at ThriveNYC site)

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My first panic attack came out of nowhere. I didn’t know I was depressed – a pressure cooker over a fire left unattended for so long that I ended up exploding. I wasn’t only not paying attention, I simply didn’t recognize the signs – anxiety, sleeplessness, hopelessness – that were silently pushing me to the edge. Had I known better, maybe I would have sought the help I needed earlier and I wouldn’t be telling this story. Or maybe not. Truth is, for all of my adult life I had always dealt with “my stuff” by myself, but not because I thought I was self-sufficient or didn’t have anyone who loved me or cared enough about me to share my pain or fears with.

I simply didn’t want to burden others with my troubles. I grew up listening to my dad saying that he would not share his problems with anyone who couldn’t do anything to fix them. And while he never directed that at me, I guess somehow the message stuck. Later in life, as I became a working journalist, I enjoyed just listening to others instead of being the one sharing her story. As the oldest of four sisters, I didn’t want to expose my vulnerabilities to anybody either. If I had to suffer – cry – I would do it alone, at home. Zero witnesses. Even if I wasn’t OK, I would make sure others thought I was just fine.

No one knows exactly what earlier this year pushed people as successful, loved and admired as Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, or the many others before them, to suicide. Upon hearing the news, the majority of us probably said something like: “But they seemed fine.” They weren’t fine. And while my depression never led me to actually hurt myself, I did experience suicidal thoughts. I wasn’t fine either.

In my case, a monthslong depression I had neglected after losing the stability of a good job I’d had for more than a decade drove me to that first episode of unprecedented and unbearable fear. During that first panic attack, which came exactly one week after I started a new job that paid me half of what I’d earned at the old job, I thought I was having a heart attack and dying. I couldn’t breathe, I was shaking, my fingers curled so tight that I couldn’t open my hands. And probably the most surreal part: I felt like in a dream, or I should say a nightmare. As if my soul had left my body. Doctors call it “depersonalization” or “derealization.” I would go on to have more of these episodes and develop panic disorder that I have since treated with medicine, therapy and the support of my family and a handful of friends, plus a renewed spiritual faith.

As I write this story, I’ve been antidepressant-free for over a month. I think that seeking professional help somehow soon after my first panic attack helped in my recovery. After my visit to the ER, I was instructed by the psychiatrist to enlist in therapy right away. But coming from Peru, a country where going to the dentist is a luxury, paying a therapist to listen to me sounded like unnecessary rich-people stuff. It would take me two or three more panic attacks to convince myself that my mental health was important and that yes, I needed medical help.  

There isn’t one single, clear cause of panic attacks or panic disorder, which is when you experience not just one isolated panic attack, but recurrent episodes and a constant fear of another panic attack. In my case, the psychiatrists who treated me – the first at an ER in midtown Manhattan and the one who would eventually evaluate and medicate me, and the psychologist I still meet every other week for therapy – agreed it was caused by my depression. But causes also include genetics, extreme stress and changes in the way parts of the brain function. Women are more likely than men to develop panic disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

While I had never heard of panic disorder, not even what a panic attack actually involved before it happened to me, they are far more common than one might think: one of every 75 people might experience panic disorder, according to the American Psychology Association. And more than one in five people experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime, according to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Yet, people who suffer from this don’t usually talk about it out of shame or fear of how they will be perceived by friends or co-workers. For me, this is the first time I’m talking about my experience outside of my family and those very few friends I mentioned before. Not only have I felt ashamed and afraid, but recounting a panic attack or discussing panic disorder has also provoked in me the kind of anxiety that could easily evolve into a panic attack and that, believe me, is pretty scary.

Nevertheless, I’ve also learned the hard way that it’s better to talk, to liberate my feelings more frequently before another pressure cooker explodes inside of me again.

With no family history of anxiety or panic disorder, neither my parents nor my sisters knew what to do with me when I first started experiencing panic attacks. While they were all loving and patient at first, my mother, for example, at one point thought that she would help me get better if she was tougher on me in order to give me the strength I needed to fight my fears. It didn’t work. I always just wanted to be hugged and nurtured.

Had I or my family been better informed, I would have probably identified and tackled my symptoms better and they would have been able to help me more efficiently.

“You are not by yourself”

In the city of New York, where one in five people have a mental health disorder, according to a 2015 study by the Department of Health, there are resources available to help people with panic attacks and their families. Through its comprehensive mental health plan, ThriveNYC, the city offers New Yorkers free Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), described as “CPR for mental health,” in locations across the five boroughs.

Trainees learn action plans for all kinds of anxiety disorders, including first aid for panic attacks. My boyfriend, who was also clueless about panic attacks before me, took the class in order to learn more about what I was experiencing and how best to help when fear gripped me.

But he didn’t just do it for me. My experience has also been scary for him and those in my most intimate circle. Like I said before, had I known better, maybe I wouldn’t have had this experience. Information is key and the class offered by ThriveNYC can actually make a difference. Besides the in-person training, attendees take home a manual for further reference which they can share with their loved ones with a mental health challenge.

Some recommendations in the Mental Health First Aid manual include:

  • If you suspect someone is having a panic attack, ask if the person knows what is happening or has previously had a panic attack.
  • If you know a person is having a panic attack, reassure that person that he or she is experiencing a panic attack while you remain calm. Speak to the person in a reassuring but firm manner, and be patient.
  • After the panic attack has subsided, ask if they know where to get information about panic attacks and if not, offer suggestions.

One place to guide someone who has experienced a panic attack or an anxiety disorder to is NYC Well, a 24/7 service by the city where people can call in, text or chat with total confidentiality to receive help to cope with stress, depression, anxiety or substance abuse. The aid, available in more than 200 languages, is not only available to those with a problem, but also to the people who care about them.

Pablo Sadler, mental health medical director at the city’s Department of Health, says that of the 20,000 or so calls NYC Well receives a month, about 1,500 are for anxiety disorder.

“You are not by yourself,” said Sadler, highlighting that callers are paired with certified peer specialists.

For those experiencing recurring panic attacks, Sadler encourages them to practice breathing exercises, decrease their stress levels, do regular exercise, and reduce their intake of caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. And once the panic attack is over, he recommends that the person write down the things done that made him or her feel better, and share that information with people they feel comfortable with.

“Support is very important,” he says.

He is right.

“It’s so important to ask people how they are, how they feel,” I told my psychologist after Bourdain’s death.

“It’s important to tell people how you feel,” he reminded me.

Andrea López Cruzado is a freelance journalist and translator currently interning with Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language podcast distributed by NPR. This article was written as part of the 2018 Health Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and funded by a grant from News Corp.

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: – Haciéndole frente a los ataques de pánico: una historia personal

  2. It’s so hard to explain to someone what do you feel when you get a panic attack. We really need to keep educate the people will be supporting their family and friends while they get better. I know it takes time to recover from this temporary mental disorder, but we need to diagnose it asap so it doesn’t develop other type of phobias such as agaro phobia, vehophobia, driving phobia, etc. This great article describes what we all should be aware of.

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