One panic attack in five months
When I was 18, I would get multiple panic attacks every single day. Full blown ones; hot and cold flushes, difficulty breathing, nausea, light-headedness, chest pains, tremors. Any number of things could set me off; a discarded tissue, cigarette butt, or band-aid on the floor, somebody coughing/sneezing nearby or brushing passed me, the kind of things you just can’t go through a day without encountering.
The other day, it dawned on me that so far this year, I have only had one such episode. One major panic attack in over a hundred and fifty days, where 9 years ago, I was probably having about five attacks per day.
To crunch the numbers, that’s approximately one attack now for every 750 I used to have in my late teens. Really puts things in perspective.
So how did I manage to reduce them so drastically? Well, first of all, practice. I’ve had many years now to learn to cope with my OCD, avoid triggering attacks in the first place, and defuse them when they do occur. I try to view each episode as a lesson; I take note of what set me off, whether it’s something I can avoid or something I need to adapt to, and which coping techniques work best.
In my case, the most helpful tricks were cognitive and breathing exercises, such as slow deep breathing, (six seconds in, six seconds out, while trying to keep my shoulders level and pull air all the way down to the bottom of my lungs) or counting slowly down from a hundred and seeing how I felt once I’d finished and the initial shock had worn off.
Secondly, to be brutally honest, medication has helped a lot. A combination of risperidone and clonazepam really took the edge of the attacks; it didn’t get rid of them, but it acted kind of like training wheels, giving me support while I learned how to fight them off.
Thirdly, starting in my early 20s, I embarked on an ongoing program of progressive desensitization. I figured my brain is like an immune system; if I deliberately expose myself to my triggers in a gradual and controlled fashion, I’ll build up a resistance to them. And it worked; many things that used to terrify me barely faze me at all any more, while others that are still uncomfortable have lost a lot of their bite.
Of course, it’s a work in progress; I still find it difficult and scary using public toilets for example, but it’s encouraging to look back at how far I’ve come. And I’ll keep pushing, I refuse to live the rest of my life being held back by fear.
If you’re someone who experiences anxiety attacks, I know it might seem like they’re just an inevitable part of life that will never go away or get better, and I used to think that too. But I was wrong, and I’ve since reduced my panic attacks to a mere 1/750th of their former frequency. And I don’t see any reason why this ability would be unique to me.