I’ve had a panic disorder since 2014. After doing a lot of hard work, 2017 to now has been more or less stable. Panic attacks were relatively few and far between, and those extremely invasive thoughts that brought about my panic cycles were pretty well-controlled. There have been many dips on this road- periods where old intrusive thoughts have started to take root in my mind again. Killing those roots takes time, deliberate mental work and lots of patience. As hard as it is, I’ve done it many times now.
Recently, my panic disorder has been at its absolute strongest. Following a totally random attack in December 2021 that saw me in the back of an ambulance, intrusive thoughts have rooted themselves very firmly in my mind. I’m in a different position to where I was in 2014. I’m a teacher, so time isn’t anywhere near as sparing. External (and sometimes internal) stressors are much more abundant and that adds difficulty to recovering again.
The real elephant in the room here is a particularly pernicious group of thoughts I’ve been having: what’s wrong with me? Why have I gone backwards? Will I find my way forwards again? For a little while, they had some very strong roots too. That’s because those thoughts elicit a feeling of shame. I’ve worked so hard on my mental health, and now I’ve “failed” and I’ve “gone backwards.” I start comparing myself to other people who are hard at work on themselves and because I’m not taking great leaps forward, this must mean I’m fucking up. I have perceived a mental downturn as a failure and something to be ashamed of. However, this isn’t the case at all. This is something I’ve hard to learn all over again. The resurgence of my panic disorder has taught me some valuable lessons already. I’ve learned some more of my limits, have better understood where my triggers come from, and I’ve even seen the foundations laid by previous successes. I went for a run yesterday. Picture this: I’ve just spent the last fortnight wrestling with the concern that every heart palpitation, every flutter, every sensation at all, must be a sign that I have some undiagnosed heart problem. So I go for a run and thus experience the most bizarre mix of feelings. I feel euphoric because I haven’t died (and my 5k time hasn’t really changed that much) whilst also feeling full-on panic because something might go wrong at any moment. This brought back some old therapy lessons for me, which have actually worked a treat and have helped me to begin unrooting my intrusive thoughts. I’ve also got the experience of doing this many times. I’ve been through it before, so I’ll come through it again. All of these realisations come about through deliberate reflection, which is a skill I’ve been working on for a while now. My past experiences have given me supports to work through a difficult period, but the constantly evolving person of right now is developing new ways of using those experiences. I challenged myself deliberately after taking time to work with and rationalise my intrusive thoughts: it is literally the combination of old and new. Having a downturn, then, isn’t a failure. It’s a part of the journey. You experience the downturn as a different person, with different thoughts and outlooks, and different methods for coming back. Downturn is a chance for further growth. It’s an opportunity. It doesn’t always feel like that though. It feels like shit. It only feels like this because I’m deliberately reflecting on it right now. So it’s essential to make sure you do take a step back. Pause and remember that downturn is just natural as the sunrise; you have a growth opportunity in front of you, so long as you hold firm to the knowledge that you will pull through.