This article is based on the narrative of a college student coming to terms with their anxiety disorder. Recently diagnosed, the student discusses the impact their illness has had on their everyday life and communicating their disorder with others.
When the onset of my anxiety disorder kicked in, I didn’t know what was happening. In my head, I was always prone to stressing out and over-thinking things. I accepted it as part of my personality. I accepted that I was always on the edge. Always worried about things I couldn’t change; past, present, and future. I always worried about my future.
When life started to pick up, so did my anxiety.
I began experiencing little attacks when I found myself especially stressed; a shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Chest pains that would worsen the tighter I held myself. My heart felt like it was going 100 miles a minute. My palms would get clammy, and all I could do is try to hold it together.
Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
I would do my best to get my breathing in control, but more often than not; I let it run its course.
A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes, and during which time four or more of a list of 13 physical and cognitive symptoms occur. The term recurrent literally means more than one unexpected panic attack. The symptoms of a panic disorder are similar to that of heart disease, thyroid problems, breathing disorders, and other illnesses and therefore often those with panic disorders will make trips to the emergency department or doctor’s office.
More often than not, the attacks would occur in public. I would be sitting at lunch, with friends, or even walking to classes. It just seemed that one thought led to another and slowly I would become consumed by my thoughts. More often than not, I didn’t see these little attacks coming. I assumed my stress would subside, or I would find a way to distract myself in order to distance myself from whatever thought filled every corner of my mind.
The term unexpected refers to a panic attack appears “out of the blue,” where there is no obvious cue or trigger at the time of occurrence. Such as when the individual is relaxing or emerging from sleep (nocturnal panic attack). In contrast, expected panic attacks are attacks for which there is an obvious cue or trigger, such as a situation in which panic attacks typically occur. A clinician will determine whether the panic attacks are expected or unexpected. Clinicians will make the call based on a combination of careful questioning as to the sequence of events preceding or leading up to the attack and the individual’s own judgment of whether or not the attack seemed to occur for no apparent reason.
Every aspect of my life seemed to be dictated by my anxiety, and worrying about the next potential panic attack did nothing to ease my concerns. School became more difficult; my attendance in my earlier classes began to suffer if I managed to fall asleep; I would often be so exhausted in the morning that I could not bring myself to get out of bed. The exhaustion would build, but so would the workload. I found that even though I felt stuck in where I was, whatever moment I was obsessing over, that the world around me kept moving forward. I felt I couldn’t move forward. I didn’t want to meet with my professors to discuss what was going on because I had no idea. In my head, the conversation explaining my stress and lack of sleep seemed typical of the college student experience and nothing that would provoke any sort of understanding from Professors. The phrase “everyone gets stressed, everyone freaks out” repeated over and over in my head. I worried what I was going through was not going to warrant understanding, especially from my older professors.
Anxiety and panic disorders are often glossed over as mental illnesses. Often times, people will hide their panic disorders, worries that they’ll be seen as a hypochondriac rather than someone with a real, and very treatable disorder.
The degree of anxiety I began experiencing over the past year and a half had grown to almost weekly panic attacks. I was worried that if I told professors, that I was going to be told to manage my time better, and change my eating/exercise habits as a means of combatting my stress, rather than understanding the severity of a diagnosis.
For those with Generalized-Anxiety Disorder, anything can cause worry. Individuals will display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms, such as restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and sleep problems. Though occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, anxiety disorders involve more chronic anxiety. This impacts the everyday life and can get worse over time if not properly addressed and treated
Anxiety Disorders. (2016, March). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
Black, D. W., & Grant, J. E. (2014). DSM-5 TM guidebook the essential companion to the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder. (2017, March 29). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder