Breathless: My Struggle With Panic Attacks

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It starts with a tightness in my chest. Slow and searing, it feels like my heart has a clamp around it, suffocating me from feeling anything besides deprivation and heaviness. My breathing switches gears and starts speeding; I’m gasping and I can’t keep up. As the corners of the room start to curl in, I close my eyes and feel a helpless unravel into darkness.

There are some things I’ve gotten used to during this pandemic. Suffering from panic attacks isn’t one of them.

The first time that I ever had a panic attack was last summer. I didn’t know what was happening to me, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

I had been dealing with various stressors and then faced a life-threatening one, and I guess it all piled up, and I came tumbling down.

I feel lucky that when it happened I had caring support in real-time. After, I told myself that it was just a one-time thing, situational. But then a few weeks later I had another one. And another.

Since then they happen intermittently. Though I know my triggers I can’t always anticipate what will trigger one and how intense it will be. Sometimes I wake up in the middle night caught in one and falling back asleep feels next to impossible. There are mornings I wake up where it feels like someone is standing on my chest.

I try to take care of myself and do all the things they say to do. I have a great treatment team that has literally saved my life– I very much know where I’d be without them. I am working on the root causes of my anxiety and addressing the trauma and loss that I carry. I have learned tools to manage my symptoms and be more aware of them before it gets to a fever pitch.

What I’ve learned about panic attacks—and in retrospect, I was pretty naïve about them before it became personal—is that they aren’t my fault. I really struggle with accepting that and I fight that reality sometimes.

I hope that one day I feel less ashamed of this.

For now, I have good days and better days– there is still a lot of good on the days I am struggling. There are times where I see this new vulnerability I bear as being an asset to who I am, not just for how it forces me to connect more with my body but how it forces me to connect spiritually. When this brings me to my knees in pain, I remain there in prayer, and it often helps.

As I finish this, my chest is tight and I feel fear about many things, including what you might think of this. But I’m guessing that there are others out there just like me, trying to come to terms with a way of functioning that is different than before and can be frightening. At a time of so much uncertainty, when we can admit we are struggling- to ourselves, to others- the unravel into darkness can experience new light and healing.

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