Panic Attacks Gave Me the Confidence To Travel
I was 17 when I had my first panic attack.
One second I was stressing about an assignment, the next I was sobbing. Hard, sharp gulps of air entered my lungs, but nothing was able to escape. Invisible hands wrapped around my throat, choking me. The room was spinning and everything was a blur. Every part of me went numb, my ears were ringing and a knot formed in my stomach. It felt as though the room was closing in. I needed air and I needed more space. What was happening to me? Why was this happening?
Panic attacks are different for everyone. They generally come on very suddenly in a wave of anxiety that causes your body to go into fight or flight mode. Your body releases extra adrenaline, which courses through your bloodstream, quickens your heartbeat, tenses your muscles, slows down your digestive system and causes you to breathe in more oxygen.
“You are like the car in the street whose alarm goes off with the smallest gust of wind, whereas all the other cars take a good beating before their alarms go off.” That’s a quote from a doctor, and I think it sums it up pretty well. We all have different levels of sensitivity that can be set off at anytime, anywhere.
I became increasingly anxious at university, where even the thought of reading my list of assignments made me nauseous. The fear of having an attack began to take control and I would avoid situations that made me feel stressed. Due dates became my worst enemy.
But it wasn’t just university that caused me to panic; it began spreading to other aspects of my life, including my travels. I wasn’t very willing to try new things and I refused to push my limits and myself because I was worried about having an attack in a strange place where I wasn’t comfortable.
When I was having an attack, I tried to hide it from my family and friends because I didn’t think anyone understood what I was going through or that I couldn’t control them. I felt like they didn’t understand that I couldn’t “just calm down”. I didn’t want to be told, “Just breathe, you have to breathe,” because I was trying. It just didn’t help.
I wasn’t alone, but I felt like I was.
According to Lifeline, more than 25 per cent of the Australian population will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime, with some – like myself – going on to develop a disorder. This can be debilitating because you tend to worry about how and when the next one will occur. It got to the point where I would have one in my car because I couldn’t find a parking spot. I would have to leave lectures sometimes because I could feel myself going into fight or flight mode.
With time and research, I learned to control my attacks through breathing exercises. I learned to read my body so well that I could feel when an attack was coming on, and could prevent it from happening. This newfound skill gave me an extra boost of confidence in my everyday life, as it allowed me to do things that I once would have avoided out of fear. Overcoming something that had so much control over me made me feel strong, and it gave me to motivation to step outside my comfort zone and challenge myself. It even made me confident enough to travel without the security of family, and allowed me to experience more when travelling because I was pushing myself more.
When I went to New Zealand with a friend, I challenged myself to do things that I once would have found impossible.I jumped off a rock face into freezing cold water, flew across the tops of trees on a zip line, dove off a boat into Lake Taupo as the sun was setting and made friends – all things that had previously terrified me.
I didn’t think I’d make it through the first semester of university, but here I am three years later and I’ve almost finished my degree. I recently took a trip to Bali and found myself hanging out with a group of strangers. A panic attack did come knocking on my door as I sat in my room with no comforts from home, but as the weeks went on, I began to cope better.
Don’t get me wrong: these situations were not without their challenges, but because I pushed myself, I’m so much better at reading my body now. I still get the occasional panic attack and suffer from stress and anxiety, but because I can control what is happening, I am so much happier.
So to anyone who is suffering – and especially to those who are suffering in silence – no matter how alone you feel, know that there are always other people going through something similar.
Cover by Linh Nguyen