I experienced my first panic attack when I was only 9 years old. It happened out of the blue, while I was in school and I didn’t know what was happening to me. All of the sudden I couldn’t breathe anymore and so I stuck my head out the window to catch my breath, assuming I had allergies. Then I ran into the hallway and after a while I fell to the ground, overwhelmed and feeling an intense pain all over my body. I didn’t faint, because my body can’t do that during a panic attack, but it felt dreadful.
My 9 year old self thought “I’m dying”!
The school wanted to call the ambulance, but upon reaching my parents, my mom immediately rushed to my rescue and was able to attribute the incident to a panic attack. She knew how much I was suffering from bullying and stress at the time.
I got into therapy almost immediately. Initially diagnosed with claustrophobia, I now know that claustrophobia was just my way of expressing my fears and problems. It was all about me being bullied and never really about a room being too small. In fact, sometimes the room would be huge, yet I would escape into a small room so I could have a reason to be anxious.
Today I’m still with my therapist who is a wonderful woman. With her I discuss everything that is on my mind and usually feel much better after the session. Solutions don’t emerge right away, but I’ve experienced that for every problem there’s one sooner or later.
Learning to navigate my challenges
I’m 14 now and a lot has changed in the past 5 years. The bullying stopped and I no longer have claustrophobia or the urge to trigger panic attacks. My body still produces them, but they feel different now. I have become a different person with different challenges and different triggers. My panic attacks evolve constantly. While hyperventilating an unbelievable 20 minute stretch without being able to stop would be my initial scenario, my struggles have increasingly shifted towards issues with my nervous system. At times it feels like my nerves go totally haywire or like lightning strikes my body. My hands and legs start shaking.
Panic attacks can manifest with a severe headache or aching limbs, with a roaring in my ears or abdominal pains and cramps. The symptoms can be anything.
People ask me how panic attack symptoms differ from symptoms of a common cold. I tell them that in a panic attack, it is not a disease that causes a headache, but a very specific feeling.That headache is clearly different from a common one. It feels like a million thoughts buzzing in and around my head simultaneously.
Over time I’ve gotten better at identifying and coping with each type of panic attack. First, I would always have an emergency kit with natural sedatives like chamomile at hand. Then I learned that walking up and down the hallway helped. By now I’ve established some kind of internal reference book containing the different types of attacks and the appropriate responses. I know exactly when drinking a glass of water and sitting on the sofa works or when running around the school building a few times is best.
During the time when I had one or more attacks per day, I seized the opportunity to become an expert on my own condition.
Searching for triggers and identifying the appropriate responses became a routine. Most importantly, I learned to calm down. As a 9 year old, I took myself far too seriously. Nowadays I say: “Okay, Ella, you’re having a panic attack now. Lie down, read a page in your book and then move on.” I no longer let my life be affected by panic attacks. Relaxing and letting go consciously took a lot of practice.
Looking back I would advise little Ella: “Go on with your life. Find people you like and trust, talk to them.” I’m fortunate to have my family and I know that not everyone has that support. But you can talk to friends, school counselors, a therapist or even a pet. Speaking thoughts out loud and realizing that they are not real is key. Sometimes I do a voice recording on the Earkick anxiety tracker app and then I realize that my perceptions don’t represent reality. They are just thoughts, not facts. And I am not my thoughts.
How Joining A Mental Health Startup Helps Me Help Others
Once I understood more about my condition, I decided to talk openly about it. I also made it clear that recovery from a mental health disorder is not a linear process. At age 12 my mental health issues even worsened. It got so bad that I had to leave school, take medication and almost ended up in stationary care.
But I kept talking about my mental health until at some point I got the opportunity to join a mental health startup called Earkick.
That’s where I got confirmation that if I express my feelings and put them into words, I can have a huge impact on others. Reflecting with the founders about what helped me and working on the product made me realize two things:
I am not alone with my mental health condition and I can turn my experience into real help for others.
I want to create my own startup in the near future. But I do not stress about it.
At Anxiety Tracker Earkick, I learned not to pressure myself and not to commit to everything right away. What started with just a few phone calls eventually turned into my heart’s project. I love working at Earkick, figuring things out and tinkering with solutions. As a next step I’ll either do an apprenticeship or go to university. I’ve been through so much and now I’m making the best of it.