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Anxiety, Panic & Depression

August 15, 2011

I’ve talked about my “mood disorders” and my “diagnoses” and my “anxiety,” but I don’t think I’ve really explained what life is like, day-to-day. So here’s how it works:

I feel anxious every day, to some degree. I almost never panic. What’s the difference? Anxiety happens around something real, like a job interview. Everyone feels anxious about a job interview, right? That’s normal. I feel anxious about the job interview and then anxious about whether or not I am qualified and then about whether or not I should have written a different cover letter and then about whether or not I will ever find any job and then about the money I spent on the cup of coffee in my hand, which I clearly shouldn’t have spent because I’m about to be jobless forever and poor. Not so normal. It’s a lot better than it used to be; it used to spiral from anxiety about a job to panic that I was a fraud and totally incompetent and didn’t deserve a job, all in about five minutes. As you might imagine, I’ve cancelled a number of job interviews in my life. I cancelled because I had worked myself into an anxiety attack. During an attack, I’ll cry hysterically and start to hyperventilate, often sitting on the floor clutching my hair. It’s painful. I usually have to sleep afterwards.

A panic attack is different in one essential quality: there is no discernible reason for me to sit on the floor in the bathroom, crying. Sure, the example above is a completely disproportionate reaction to the job interview. But it’s an extreme version of the emotion that everyone feels before a job interview. In college, I once came home from a perfectly fun night out, went into the bathroom to wash my face, took one look in the mirror and burst into tears. It took me over an hour to calm down. I still have no idea what triggered that panic attack. The kinds of thoughts that race through my mind during a panic attack have a general theme of self-hatred, but I don’t need a reason. The bathroom sink, the front door, the coffee machine. These have all driven me to tears. I haven’t had a panic attack since I started taking Klonopin. You might understand if I’m nervous about going off the drug. The panic attack can’t get going, you see, if the physical symptoms don’t start it. A good cry doesn’t turn into panic if the medication keeps my brain from sending crazy electrical signals that say “you can’t breath!” or make me dizzy.

I do not experience depression unless I stop dealing with the anxiety, start feeling panic, go deep into denial and, essentially, start giving up. Depression happened because I tried to pretend that the anxiety wasn’t there. I was pretending because I thought that it wasn’t normal, it would go away, I could just work harder and make it stop. The diagnosis is Major Depressive Disorder, however, because depression is the place I go when I am extremely discouraged. I stop getting out of bed. I cry a lot. I don’t eat much. It follows me because I know I will go back there if I allow anxiety to take over my life again. That’s not the reaction that most people have, so it’s a disorder.

“Mood disorder” is the umbrella term for each of these more specific disorder for an obvious reason: my mood stops matching the situation and becomes very dark. Psychosis is not a mood disorder; during a psychotic state, people see, hear, believe, know, things that aren’t real. It’s not about the mood so much as the thoughts. Anxiety, panic and depression are all about the mood you’re in when something happens. They’re sneaky because they live inside my reactions to my life. A perfectly normal reaction can turn into an anxiety attack, especially when I’m vulnerable. When I’m sick, have had a series of migraines, have not been to therapy in awhile, then it’s harder to say “no” to the thought “you are not good enough.” The thought spins around, in it’s various, highly detailed permutations, until it has spun my mood out of control. It takes an awful lot of work to turn that mood around.

It looks so hard when I write it all out. It is difficult, I suppose. But my alternatives are worse. And I just got used to doing that work, once I learned how. I’m still learning. I know that the analogy I’m about to share is a little bit silly, but my therapist in college came up with it and it just describes what I’m learning to do so well. She said that it’s like I have been walking through the woods, and suddenly here’s this path. It’s not going anywhere. There’s no destination. But since I’m walking through these woods anyway, it’s really a lot easier to walk on the path. I lose it sometimes and end up fighting my way through stray branches, roots, rocks and dense trees. But I find it and get back on. And keep walking.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2011 2:31 pm

    I dealt with panic attacks too, they are scary. I got them when we lived in Washington. I couldn’t understand why the doctors said I was getting them after my husband came home from his deployment. I was under way more stress when he was gone.
    It turned out blood work showed that I had a Vitamin D deficency. Imagine that? Haven’t had a panic attack since we moved to GA in Feb. and I haven’t been on medication either…

    • August 16, 2011 2:58 pm

      Lynnae, that’s fascinating about the Vitamin D. I found out this summer that I had a Vitamin D deficiency. I don’t think I had one when the panic attacks were at their worst, but there could be a connection. It makes sense to me that you’d have the panic attacks after he came home, though, because our bodies are really good at keeping things together when we absolutely need to. I used to have anxiety attacks *after* my finals. I couldn’t afford to during the exam, so somehow I kept it together until afterwards. And then I’d stay in my room for three days, crying intermittently. I don’t miss those days!

  2. August 16, 2011 3:11 pm

    It started about 4 months after he came home. They told me the same thing but they went away almost instantly after the vitamin D boost. I got tested again whe I was here and got another boost and no panic attacks so it worked for me but everybody is different. I know the drugs do work for people!

  3. August 16, 2011 3:15 pm

    Hey, if I could do it with Vitamin D, I’d sign up for an intravenous drip and throw out the prescription meds today.
    I’m really glad they found such a simple cause for you! I love when it works like that. And you can take Vitamin D while pregnant, and should, so that’s just an extra benefit. There is D in my fish oil. We’ll see how it goes!

  4. August 17, 2011 2:11 am

    re: “anxiety attacks *after* finals” Last fall I had the most demanding semester I have ever experienced. From August to October I dealt with 5 grad classes, 25hr/wk internship, applying for final internship including 4 essays and detailed account of all prior experience/qualification in forensic psych field and finishing up/giving oral defense of my research proposal for my dissertation study. Finally when the bulk of it was over there was a week where I had heart palpitations and bouts of cold sweat and insomnia for several days. It was as if my body realized that I now had time to expel all the stress, I was able to experience the stress that I was putting myself through. It was the craziest thing ever! My therapist pointed out, too, that bodies are remarkably able to handle things until after an ordeal. Evolutionarily thinking it makes sense, can’t quite freak out when there’s an animal chasing you about to gobble you up, so the genes that were able to hold off the freak-out till after outrunning the animal were the genes that carried on.

  5. February 5, 2013 1:03 pm

    Hi, I’m 13 years old and I also suffer fro panic attacks- they scare me to death, all because I worry about silly things. My brain tells me I can’t breathe and in some cases I get scared I’m going to die. I hate then so much but I can’t stop them from happening. It’s terrifying! I also have this strange thing where i cry over stupid things- like not being able to understand work at school. As well as that i feel upset all the time and in some cases ive even believed death would be so much easier. I see a counsellor once a week but I don’t think it works much. I don’t know what to do anymore.

    • February 5, 2013 1:53 pm

      Dear Em,
      When I was in high school, I had a full-on, ugly-cry anxiety attack because I didn’t understand the assignment. In 5th grade, I did something similar over a fight with some friends. When I was your age, the panic attacks would happen at night–I couldn’t breath and hurt so much I thought I wouldn’t make it through. Absolutely everything you are saying sounds absolutely familiar. I was so mad at my therapist, because I just kept feeling terrified that it would happen at any moment, without warning.

      I very much hope that when you feel that “death would be so much easier,” you are not actively considering suicide or making plans to end your life. If that ever does happen, please tell someone right away. This is a lie that depression tells you. It is NOT TRUE. Never trust that voice; even when you can’t make it shut up, remember that it is not telling you the truth.

      I can’t tell you what to do. All I can tell you is that it your counsellor can’t help if s/he doesn’t know the whole story. Can you print this out and read it aloud?

      If you don’t trust your counsellor and feel very strongly about that, it’s ok to switch. You won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s a little bit like trying to find a new friend: some people are just easier to talk to than other people. It really sucks to go tell your story again and “start over” but it pays off when you finally find someone you feel good talking to.

      The one thing that science can prove helps everyone deal with anxiety, especially as teenagers, is to get enough sleep. This is probably really hard, because the adolescent body sends out the “go to sleep” signal (a chemical called melatonin) about an hour later than a child’s body or an adult body. At the same time, school starts earlier and some activities happen before school. But study after study after study has proved that a teenager’s mood gets better for every 15 more minutes of sleep! And it doesn’t count if you sleep lots only on weekends.

      Please don’t lose hope. It gets better. Even if it doesn’t feel any better but you just keep trying anyway, that means you’re doing a good job. As long as you don’t give up, you are doing a good job. I wish I could tell you something that would fix it. When I was 13, I didn’t tell anyone how badly I was really feeling. I just picked a lot of fights with my mom.

      One more thing: this is an old website. I still get notices when people leave comments, but I write at now. I just wrote about my latest anxiety attack. It still happens, but it doesn’t get as bad as it used to get. I don’t want to disappear, anymore. I don’t believe the lies. Get in touch any time. I’m a very good email pen pal! You can find me at amtonyan [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @DoNotFaint.

  6. meggie permalink
    November 17, 2013 7:32 pm

    thank you for this. I have been dealing with very similar issues it’s nice to know that i’m not alone in my epic mood swings and sobbing for no apparent reason. I had a panic attack last night and no one was there to help me through it, it’s a scary place to be.


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