The summer before I started high school, I moved halfway across the world. And that summer, I had my first ever panic attack. As an expat kid, change and uncertainty were as much a part of my life as my favourite TV show or book. While I was always a relatively anxious child (my mum tells stories of me refusing to let her drop me off at preschool), the perfect storm of dramatic change at a transition point in my life (starting high school is never going to be easy) led to me developing a panic disorder which turned into generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) about three years later. Everything terrified me — walking into a new classroom at my new school, surround sound speakers in assemblies and cinemas, fire drills, a math test, having a substitute teacher, getting less than top marks on a test or exam. Over my four years in high school, I had a panic attack at least once a week. I constantly felt on edge, as if I was permanently walking across a tightrope, and the slightest amount of uncertainty or unfamiliarity ended with me crying and hyperventilating in the bathroom. At the time, it felt as if I would never be able to live without this fog of anxiety clouding every day.
Slowly though, with help from my friends and some amazing teachers, I started to learn how to work through the anxiety I was feeling rather than let it control me. My English teacher talked me through every anxious thought that I had and let me use her classroom as a safe haven from the pressures of school. My physics teacher taught me about how panic attacks happen physically, gave me paper bags to breathe in to, and was brutally honest with me when I was overthinking things like crazy. My friends held my hands, wiped my tears, and sat on bathroom floors counting breaths with me. With their support, I began to learn how to cope with panic attacks. But I still didn’t learn how to identify or deal with the root causes of my anxiety.
At the beginning of my senior year, I was diagnosed with a severe vitamin B12 deficiency and chronic fatigue syndrome. Living overseas in a tiny country meant that I didn’t receive the proper treatment and continued to get sicker. I had gone from the being the ‘perfect’ student — always studying, working ahead in classes, getting top marks — to being unable to work for more than thirty minutes at a time. My life had once again changed completely. And my anxiety got much worse. I worried constantly about university applications, my grades, my social life (which was nonexistent because I could barely get out of bed), and my health. The only way that I could cope with the challenges I was facing was by taking life day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute. Yet again, I wasn’t able to address the deeper reasons for my anxiety.
Five years after I had my first panic attack, I’m starting my second year of university. I live hundreds of miles away from my parents. I have an amazing group of friends and I’m enjoying my degree. I haven’t had a panic attack in three months. But most importantly, over the last year, I’ve come to understand why I feel the ways that I do. I’ve been able to recognise that the changes and level of uncertainty I have experienced throughout my life are dramatic and that it is perfectly reasonable to experience anxiety as a result of them — just because I’ve moved a lot, it doesn’t make the experiences any less traumatic. I’m learning to recognize the limits that my body has as a result of chronic illness and work with them to enable me to do what I want to do. Recognising that sometimes I have to slow down, but not letting it stop me from living a full life, has helped my anxiety so much.
When changes happen in my life, I now react to them by looking at what I can and can’t control. I let go of things outside of my influence and tackle the aspects that I can control. I’m learning that I don’t need friends and teachers to get me through the challenges of life. Instead, I am relying on myself to get me through them. I am learning that I am capable of supporting myself through the anxious moments that I still frequently experience. My friends and family are there for me, but I am also there for me. When it seems like everything in my life has changed completely, I am still the same person I always have been. I’m learning to recognize the strength that I have within me.