Place yourself in this familiar position: you’re sitting in class, listening to your professor’s lecture. You just ate lunch in the caf, where you scarfed down a bowl of your favorite tater tots and laughed and talked about your day with your friends. You’re feeling content and cheerful, except for this nagging nervousness in the back of your mind that just can’t seem to go away. You ignore it, even though the feeling is slowly, but relentlessly, building.
Anyways, you’re taking notes and doodling in the margin of your notebook, when suddenly you are convinced that your throat is closing up, like you can’t seem to suck down enough air. Hands shaking, heart pounding, you attempt to convince yourself that you’re fine. “Calm down, calm down, calm down,” you frantically repeat to yourself, replaying this mantra over and over in your head, but your brain refuses to listen and your thoughts are racing. The classroom seems very far away, and you’re convinced you’re going to die. At that moment, your professor decides to call on you. You try your best to appear normal and under control. Unless someone notices the involuntary trembling of your hands, they may never guess that inside you are screaming for help.
Okay, so maybe that situation was not-so-typical for most people. But for me, these same symptoms that I experienced in class, which admittedly can sometimes be a stressful environment, would also sneak up on me when I was least expecting it, like when I was relaxing and watching reruns of Boy Meets World or out celebrating at a restaurant with my friends. Panic attacks would strike frequently, usually daily, for about five years before I reached out to my family for help and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder this past summer. During those five years, I kept my anxiety a secret, never acknowledging that I had a problem or even fully admitting it to myself.
I let it escalate to the point where I felt like I couldn’t even function in daily life. Once I realized the sensations of completely losing control could happen anywhere, at any time, my anxiety spiraled. Sitting on the couch, watching my favorite episode of Friends (you know, the one where Ross and Joey get stuck on their apartment roof and have to help each other climb down the fire escape?), instead of gasping for air out of laughter, I would find myself gasping for air in a panic and and pacing the room until I felt calm. At my worst point, even getting into a car turned into a near impossibility, an experience complete with hyperventilating, shaking and crying for no apparent reason.
You might wonder why I’m publicly detailing my struggles after fighting to preserve their secrecy for so long. For a long time, I somewhat ignorantly believed that I was the only person facing these hurdles, and that I was therefore insane. But in reality, there are so many people out there who are fighting the same battle, on this campus and everywhere else, even though they might not be openly talking about it. Reading blog posts written by others going through the same struggle as me was the main thing that pushed me to open up and learn how to cope with my anxiety. So even though a part of me is screaming not to write this, I feel like it is my responsibility to raise my voice about this issue.
The more I look for information on the topic, the more I notice the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness. Sometimes it’s viewed as a weakness. If someone breaks their ankle or contracts a sinus infection, that’s not something people are typically ashamed of or keep hidden. So why do people often talk in hushed tones about panic attacks, or depression, or any other form of mental health issue? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in a given year, about 26.2 percent of Americans suffer from some type of diagnosable mental disorder. I want to start hearing more of their stories. We need to stop fighting our mental illnesses, destroy the shield of secrecy hiding them and start talking about them more openly so there can be more of an understanding about these issues. Think about how much suffering would be alleviated simply by sharing the stories of our common struggles, until we eliminate any feelings of isolation or helplessness.