Panic attacks and therapy

I’ve experienced panic attacks for several years now, but until recently, I had no idea what they were. I’d often have a sudden urge to run away from a situation when it got tense or difficult, and I’d be left wandering the streets, guilty and confused as to why I’d felt physically unable to stay. In some instances, my vision went black around the edges, and the world felt as if it was moving in slow motion. There was one night I was convinced, for no discernible reason, that I was going to die. It was only last year, when my symptoms began to fit more closely into the traditional definition of a panic attack, that I realized I’d been having panic attacks all along.

I moved to a new city last year. I got a dream job and moved into a small, sweet studio apartment. I went on dates, I tried to make friends. Unfortunately, I developed asthma shortly after moving, but otherwise, I felt like I was on the right track. But after a few months, it became clear that things were spiraling out of my control. The job was not what I had dreamt it to be; I was having trouble making friends and each date I went on was more nightmarish than the last; and worst of all, the apartment was in a building that was a mecca of nosy and aggressive neighbors.

I started going to a therapist. I’d seen one before, years ago, to some success. I was having adjustment issues in the new city, I thought, and it could help to have someone to talk to each week. Therapy ended up doing a lot more for me this time round. I instantly clicked with my therapist. She was the second one I tried, after feeling judged by the first person I saw. She was an amiable young woman who never judged me for talking about sex, or feeling lost at work, or complaining about my neighbors. She told me I could call or text her if things ever felt really bad; she couldn’t promise to always pick up, but she said she’d always call back as soon as she could, especially if it was urgent. Things weren’t getting better, but they did feel more bearable.

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One Friday night, at around 10:30pm, when I was at home in my studio, my neighbor began frying up a batch of fish. She had her front door open, and the walls and door of my apartment were thin, so fumes began floating in. The fishy smell didn’t bother me much, but the fumes began to irritate my throat. I began wheezing, and eventually realized I was close to having an asthma attack. I waited until the pain in my chest became unbearable, and I went out to politely ask her to close her front door. In short, she did not take it well, refused to close the door, and started screaming at me. Others in the apartment building began to gather to watch her.

The pain in my chest grew; and I knew I had to leave the situation. I went into my studio, for lack of anywhere else to go, and could still hear her yelling through the thin door. Although I wasn’t having an asthma attack, the feeling of dread built up in my lungs like phlegm, and I started breathing very fast. I felt trapped, and the walls looked like they were closing in on me. I wanted to run away, but I had no idea where, and I did not want to confront the aggressive woman at my door.

I lay down on the bed and screamed, but even that didn’t make her stop. I called my parents, who are always very supportive, but while they were very worried, they couldn’t figure out how to help me, or even what was wrong. I began to lose feeling in my fingers, and I was terrified it was a sign my asthma attack was getting worse. I didn’t know what to do, so I called my therapist.

It was the best decision I made last year. It seemed unlikely to me that she would pick up. It was a Friday night at 10:30pm; her work hours end at 8pm, and she doesn’t work weekends. But she picked up. She was clearly out somewhere. Over the phone I could hear the rumbling sounds of a crowd at a party. Even in that barely-cognizant state, I felt extremely grateful.

“What are you feeling?” she asked. I explained the situation and the things I was feeling. She told me that she’d count in three-second intervals, and that I should breathe in and out with each interval. I told her I was worried about my fingers. “Keep closing them and opening your fist,” she told me. “Keep moving them. Don’t worry, you’ll start to feel them soon, just make sure you keep moving them.”

She stayed on the phone with me until I calmed down. The woman had stopped yelling and returned to fry her fish. I realized I wasn’t having an asthma attack: it was a panic attack. My fingers were starting to tingle with feeling. My therapist told me to keep moving them for a few more minutes, and when I felt like I was more in control of myself, we ended the call. By the time my parents called a few minutes later, I was feeling fine.

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When I saw my therapist the next week, she told me that panic attacks happen when we feel afraid that we have no control over a situation. We talked about how my life in the new city had not gone according to plan, and the woman yelling at me over the fried fish was just the tipping point in the spiraling feeling I’d already been experiencing. We talked about how difficult, but important, it is to acknowledge and surrender to our lack of control in any given situation. She also advised me to find a new apartment. People disagree on whether therapists should give this kind of concrete advice, but I took it, and it was, undeniably, the right move for me in that situation.

Since then, I’ve only had a few panic attacks, and I haven’t had any this year. When they have happened, and I have felt my chest close up, or lost feeling in my fingers, I’ve opened and closed my fists. It’s almost a way of reminding myself that the attack will subside soon. It also reminds me that I’ll always have the option of therapy. Thinking about that makes it difficult for a panic attack to overwhelm me very much. It’s a comforting thought: There’s someone out there whose job it is to understand what I’m going through, and to guide me out.

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