Your heart beats faster. Your hands shake. You feel cold and start to sweat bullets. Your eyes squint as you keep balance. “Am I getting a heart attack?”
This is a normal occurrence for an abnormality known as “panic disorder”. Not many know its name but a good number have experienced it. Some have overcome it; others continue to struggle out of it; a handful has slid from it into something worse: depression.
To those with loved ones who complain of similar symptoms of panic disorder, move away from the common line: “It’s all in the mind!” Many have been very dismissive of the need of those who have panic disorder to be afforded extra understanding and support that they have instead antagonized chances at recovery.
Let us break the myth that those with panic disorder have psychiatric problems or are psychologically unstable by our amateur terms. When not managed properly – as with any disease as diabetes and hypertension – panic disorder can, however, get out of hand.
Panic disorder is said to be a disorder characterized by frequent uncontrollable panic attacks that occur without any trigger. In short, even without thinking of something concrete or specific (i.e. deadline to beat), you just experience it. And unlike ordinary panic attacks that can be dealt with following an accomplishment (i.e. beating the deadline or completing a report), panic attacks that build up panic disorder are much harder to predict, much more to control.
Among psychiatrists, medication is a cure to panic disorder. Medical practitioners point to a chemical imbalance or something genetic as a major factor behind panic disorders. Psychologists, on the other hand, have a different view. To them, it is a behavioral problem – more like how you act according to your appreciation of life and your ability to work around its quirks and twists.
In my case, it was a mix of both psychiatric/medical and psychological approaches that helped me with my panic disorder. Yes, I have been diagnosed with panic disorder. To those who know me, upon learning that I did have my fair share of panic disorder, their common reaction: “You seem to be good at hiding it!”
My first bitter taste of panic attacks was when I was around nine years old. It was a horrendous feeling that consumed me every afternoon. All I could do was cry and jump up and down to shake it off. Many doctors saw me. None, except the quack doctor, somehow “made sense” of what I was sick of. His diagnosis from burnt guava leaves: elves were playing a prank on me. It sure was a costly prank as we had to butcher a pig to spread its fresh blood on our property. Whether it held water, I was lucky to have moved out of it a few months later.
But just when I thought it was over, the same series of panic attacks haunted me in 2013, while attending a conference in Taipei. The experience was worse. Throughout the day, my heart was pounding hard and fast. I was sweating inside a very cold conference venue. Concentration was hard to come by. I had to fight off my fears that I was having a stroke, a heart attack, or a brain tumor. Every night, I only managed to sleep after forcing myself to vomit. When I arrived in Manila from Taipei, I saw a psychiatrist at The Medical City. I was prescribed medicines for two straight months – failure to take them, I was told, would aggravate my panic attacks. I did not take them.
Not until I was admitted a few months after for what I thought was a heart attack that I started taking anti-depressants for some two weeks, after my doctor in Dumaguete prescribed them to me in case I had difficulty sleeping. Deep inside me, I knew though that if I allowed myself to get hooked to anti-depressants, I might not find a natural way of moving away from an unexplainable anxiety. Besides, many who got hook to such medication turned suicidal. It was a “risk” that I committed myself to.
If you are experiencing panic disorder, be open about it. Let your family and friends know what you are going through. Revealing what can be perceived as a weakness is actually strength in itself. Do not be ashamed of it; the more you fear it, the more you wonder why people don’t seem to care. Reaffirm your faith. Do some silent meditation and reflection on the good things that happened in your life. Keep a mental or literal note of blessings and what you still dream of achieving in life. This can be a handy reference and source of motivation on days when dark clouds seem to dwarf the prospects of a better life.
Luckily, I have overcome my panic disorder. It was not easy but neither was it impossible.