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“Fear is the brains way of saying that there is something important for you to overcome”
As the summer comes to an end I can’t help but feel anxious about the future. Many of my friends during isolation have been excited to return to school or work. Meanwhile, I’m dreading what it will be like to sit in a lecture hall again. Some may call my thinking pessimistic or selfish, when in reality I am just an extremely anxious person. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was struggling with panic disorder. This is when my body goes into fight or flight mode accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of terror. Symptoms of panic disorder typically come out of nowhere. You could be out for coffee with friends and then “boom,” your heart starts racing, you feel disoriented, sweaty, dizzy, all symptoms which are similar to a heart attack. I developed panic disorder in January and prior to my first attack, I had no knowledge about them. I knew of people who experienced panic attacks but was unaware of the symptoms a panic attack unleashes on your body.
My first panic attack happened on the subway. My heart began to race, and I felt extremely disoriented from my surroundings. I felt my body tense up and knew that something wasn’t right. I became self conscious and each swallow felt difficult. Were people watching me or was it all in my head? When the subway arrived at the next stop I felt relief and practically jumped off. It was as if I had been underwater searching for air. I immediately called my dad who explained to me that I was having a panic attack. I thought to myself “But I’m not anxious about anything so how could this happen?” When I felt calm enough I hopped back on the subway hoping I wouldn’t be late for class. Unfortunately, moments after departing I began to experience panic attack symptoms again. I thought that there must be something seriously wrong with my body. When the subway reached the next stop I immediately ran off. This pattern of jumping off and on the subway lasted half an hour until I gave up and decided to take an Uber home missing my lecture.
For the next few months I would have panic attacks every day. I sought out medical advice because I was convinced that I was having heart problems. However, even when that fear was debunked I still felt anxious. Having panic attacks in public was something that consumed my mind. I avoided certain areas and cancelled plans due to this irrational yet understandable fear. I only felt safe outdoors in nature or in the comfort of my own home. In some cases, I would be out with a friend and suddenly have a panic attack. I was ashamed and didn’t want friends to think they were the cause of my distress. I began to skip class, or rely on Uber to get me there. Completing tests became a major struggle as they were usually accompanied by the symptoms of a racing heart beat, dizziness, trouble swallowing and disorientation. My grades took a major decline and I found myself in an anxious and depressed like state. I was confused as to why I suddenly developed this unpleasant thing. Being an anxious person who never had panic attacks I questioned why my body was putting me through this now.
Ironically, when the COVID-19 pandemic began I felt some form of relief. I was finally able to relax and not worry about panic attacks. A weight was lifted off my shoulders. I felt free from all the situations that made me anxious. Although many people with anxiety or panic disorder have felt more nervous than usual during this time I felt relief. I feel guilty saying this as I know the devastating effects that COVID-19 has had on many families. However, this isolated life was what put an end to my panic attacks. I went from having one everyday to only two panic attacks in the last 5 months. I was able to use COVID-19 as a time to reflect on why I was experiencing these symptoms. It was clear that the daily hassles of life, school, and work were all components that contributed to my frequent panic attacks. I was glad to have found a cause and trigger but can’t help but worry what it will be like entering life again. I am excited yet nervous for the future and what life post COVID-19 will bring. I wonder if my panic attacks will return? Thinking about this only makes me more anxious.
However, I am grateful that I have used this time to come up with strategies to calm my anxiety, and lessen the frequency and intensity of my panic attacks. Understanding that panic attacks cannot hurt me and are not life threatening has made a major difference. In the past, I was a regular at my doctor’s office, constantly checking my heart rate and blood pressure. I was convinced panic attacks were dangerous. Thankfully, I have now realized that they are safe and knowing this fact has lessened the intensity of them. Reading books such as Anxiety: Panicking About Panic by Joshua Fletcher has made a major impact on my knowledge and how I view anxiety and panic attacks. I have journaled, cut out caffeine and try to exercise frequently, all things that can help lessen the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
If you’re feeling anxious about the future post COVID-19, know that you are not alone in your thoughts. It is normal for school, work and other hassles to be causes of stress, anxiety and panic attacks. Feeling scared of COVID-19 is also normal and something I have struggled with each time I leave my house. Wondering if I was safe enough is a constant worry on my brain. We must be kind to ourselves and understand that feeling scared to return to “real life” is absolutely valid.
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