Spurred on by some of the posts and writing of the Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, about her struggle and success with anxiety disorders, I decided I would share my own story. I am posting this honestly and truthfully, with no (or very little) exaggeration in the hope that those who read it and may deal with the same issues can take some solace in the fact that it is not just you. This is something that effects many people and there are ways to work through it. Here’s my story:
I’ve always been someone who had to deal with a hefty amount of anxiety in my life. Throughout my school years I constantly worried about social situations and public presentations, to the degree that I would feel sick and unable to eat if I was too nervous. This never escalated much beyond a bit of nerves that would be solved once the event in question was completed. However, this was not always the case.
In my sophomore year in college I began having chest pain. It wasn’t minor chest pain either. It was pretty serious. It would begin in my upper chest around my shoulders and radiate into my back and up into my jaw. When this started happening I started getting very nervous. I seriously believed that I was having a heart attack. I remember the first night when this happened I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that if I fell asleep I was going to die and there would be nothing I could do about it. The funny thing is that if by chance my body decided to die there was really nothing I could do about it anyway. I suppose I just wanted to be awake for it. Why sleep through the major events of life.
Anyway, as any “sane” person would do, I struck out onto the internet to figure out what was happening. I read through forums and scanned the (brand new at the time) WebMD and a slew of other internet medical sites to try and self-diagnose because why go see a doctor when you can get the same thing online. After a good deal of time, I came upon four major diagnoses (apart from the few odd outliers): I was having severe heartburn, I had angina, I was having a heart attack, or I had cancer.
The problem, it seemed (at least according to my research), was that I was too young to be having a heart attack or to have cancer. The issue I had with this “reassuring” information was that there were also a good selection of stories about people who had experienced these things at young ages and basically their bodies said screw you to the concept that these were old people diseases. Also, angina is just chest pain, and I knew I had chest pain because that was what I was looking for a diagnosis about and essentially WebMD said, “Hey, you’ve got chest pain and you want to know what the problem is, medically? Well, it looks like you have chest pain.” Thanks, asshole.
Now I had never really had heartburn much in my life, but I was overweight and ate poorly so it wasn’t completely out of the question that this was the explanation. However, this seemed far too extreme to be explained by heartburn. My real problem with this was that the pain was radiating into my back and chest and the internet assured me that this was a sure determinant of heart problems.
After a few more sleepless nights, I finally told my boss on campus about my problems and she forced me to call the doctor and go in to health services. I went in and told the doctor about my problems and she decided to run an EKG and a cholesterol test to determine if I was at risk for heart problems, though she thought it would be weird for me to be suffering from this because of my age. In the end, she diagnosed me with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or in other words, acid reflux. I was put on a PPI (Nexium) and it mostly helped out. I tried to change the way I ate to prevent some of the real problems from coming up again. Of course, I didn’t do a great job of this and occasionally I’d still have chest pains.
Because I was now taking something that was supposed to be helping me and I was occasionally experiencing the same problems, I started to worry that I was still dying. In fact, every time I started to feel the chest pains coming on, I would start experiencing other things: chills, sweating, nausea. These were all things that I had read about being associated with heart attacks, and so I continued to worry. One night when I was watching the original Oceans 11, I started having chest pain and started worrying. Then it started to radiate, as usual, into my back and jaw. Then I started sweating and getting the chills. Finally, to top it all off, I started to have pain that shot down my left arm, accompanied by numbness. Needless to say, I flipped out. I told my friends what was happening and they asked me if I wanted them to take me to the ER. After a few minutes agonizing over whether or not I actually wanted to go, I decided I would. So they rushed me down and I sat in the waiting room forever until I was finally brought back to see a doctor. After running through my problems, he ran an EKG and a chest x-ray. When all came back, he told me there was nothing really wrong that he saw. Considering all of the issues I was having, he told me that it was pretty likely that I had a panic attack during an episode of pain from my GERD.
I took all this information and went home and mostly forgot about it. I did look up panic attacks on the internet and found out that they frequently feel like having a heart attack and that they are often experienced by people with acid reflux who have a panic attack about their pain worrying that they are having a heart attack. The big problem is that people who experience panic attacks will often worry about having another one which leads to them having a panic attack. Its a vicious cycle.
Probably about a month later, after the school year had ended, my mom scheduled me an appointment with an internal medicine doctor in my hometown. He listened to all my issues and ran some blood tests. I believe he also did an EKG (I’ve probably had about 6-8 of these in my life). In the end, he prescribed a new PPI (a more extreme one this time) and talked to me about panic disorder, which he told me that I likely had. He told me a lot that I had learned on the internet (go figure that some of the information on the internet is actually true), but he also told me that there were two major ways that a person can deal with their panic attacks. The first way is to take an antidepressant which is something that I was too excited about doing. The second was through biofeedback, which is essentially a way of calming yourself down through a number of different techniques until the panic attack subsides. I decided to give that a try and worked toward it myself. I could have spoken to a therapist who specializes in biofeedback to learn these methods, but I really didn’t want to. So I just figured out how to do it myself.
Eventually I got it mostly under control. I would start to feel a panic attack coming on and I would stop everything I was doing and sit there breathing slowly until it went away. I even had one come up when I was in the middle of an exam (organic chemistry – you understand). It took a while of steady breathing but eventually the panic went away. I lost out on some of my time to complete the test, but I got it under control. And I probably wouldn’t have really done that much better had I had the time anyway.
At this point in my life, the panic attacks rarely show up anymore. The panic disorder is not gone, nor will it ever be, but I have a good deal of control over it. I still have pain from the reflux now and again, but it almost never makes me panic. The attacks really only come on when I have some sort of extreme emotional event, and I can usually get them under control.
In the long run, this type of problem is something that is not uncommon but can be really bad. In fact, it could get a lot worse if not controlled. Sometimes, people with panic disorder become agoraphobics because they are worried about encountering whatever it is that triggers the attack and they’ll panic again. As someone with the disorder, you often spend most of your time trying to avoid another panic attack until you figure out how to stop the cycle. If you worry that you have this disorder, don’t panic (I know, that probably wasn’t as cute as I thought it was). Go see a doctor, or at least look into a therapist that knows about biofeedback. Break the cycle and you’ll find that you can live a much more normal life.
And don’t try to diagnose yourself using the internet.