What It's Really Like to Live With Severe Panic Disorder

You may have heard about, seen, or experienced for yourself what it’s like to have anxiety and panic disorders. It’s a battle, and it doesn’t stop just because you've started going to therapy or taking medication. Being properly diagnosed and figuring out the right treatment can be struggles that few people talk about, which is why I’m sharing my own experiences (there’s a lot to cover, so I’m going to split it into a couple of modular parts).

I have social anxiety, general anxiety, and panic disorder, all of which are severe and have been affecting me since I was 10. It wasn’t diagnosed until I was 17, and during those 7 years, I had bouts of panic attacks that would come and go, but overall I was remarkably high-functioning; I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities and even held officer positions in a couple of student organizations. As far as I knew, my anxious thoughts were just normal stress and my panic attacks, which mainly made me feel short of breath, were asthma (which I later figured out I don’t even have, despite taking asthma medications for years). It wasn’t until the second quarter of my senior year of high school that I had a series of debilitating panic attacks and found out exactly what was going on with me.

One of the frustrating things about panic disorder is that its symptoms, while harmless, are also shared by a lot of serious physical conditions: shortness of breath, chest tightness and pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, and a tingly numb feeling in different parts of the body. I was having all of these symptoms for hours at a time at least once every other day. I was suddenly missing class, so of course I saw my pediatrician, who referred me to get tested for respiratory and circulatory problems. This meant an electrocardiogram (EKG), chest x-rays, and a blood test for anemia. I had been under this pediatrician’s care since my family moved to Washington when I was a baby, and she’s always listened to me and provided excellent care. The extra stress and exacerbation of my panic disorder that ensued was not her fault, but it was a result of the idea in my mind that my body wasn’t being properly oxygenated. The possibility that I was feeling worn out, weak, and like my life might be in danger every day all because of something wrong with my body that I had limited control over was terrifying. It was little consolation that those feelings were actually the result of my body panicking for essentially no reason, but that’s not the main focus here.

After having gone through that experience, a big question I have is why tests for anxiety and panic disorder aren’t high on the list like EKGs, blood tests, and even x-rays. Of course conducting appropriate tests to rule out and diagnose physical ailments is and should be one of the first responses to severe, unexplained symptoms. However, given the physical symptoms of panic attacks, it seems that they should also be checked for early on. In my situation, figuring out the likelihood that my physical symptoms were panic attacks sooner could have saved me from a lot of extra stress. Getting those mental diagnoses early on would have allowed me to start getting a handle on my mental health and be more functional while the physical tests were still in progress.

Once I had my proper diagnoses, I could finally get it all under control with treatment. One might expect this to be the end of the war, but there was another battle ahead. I’ll be discussing this experience in my next article.