Being Diagnosed With Panic Disorder & Agoraphobia Isn't a Life Sentence
I want to start by saying that this episode isn’t a typical episode of A Healthy Push podcast where I share lots of helpful tips and tools. And although this may be disappointing to some, or may have you thinking about skipping this episode, please don’t! Because I know that this episode is going to be incredibly helpful to many. Because the truth is, if I could have hit play on an episode like this one back when I was struggling, I would have felt so seen, so heard, so understood, and most importantly, I would have felt so much hope.
I created this episode for so many reasons.
- I created this episode for those who are struggling, who feel like there’s something wrong with them, who feel like they’re broken, who feel like they’re crazy, who don’t feel seen, or heard, or understood, or valued, and for those who feel like they will never live a life that doesn’t include the symptoms, panic, and fears.
- I created this episode to help break stigmas surrounding mental health and anxiety disorders.
- I created this episode so that you can share it with a loved one or with a friend, to help give you a voice if you’re finding it hard to communicate what you’re struggling with and the effects your struggle has had on you and your life.
- I created this episode to show what it actually looks like to struggle with panic disorder and agoraphobia.
- And I also created this episode to show you what’s possible. Because when I was struggling, nobody shared with me that my life not only didn’t have to be consumed by anxiety, panic, and fear, but it could also look like me living out a wildly adventurous life that is full of moments where I surprise myself of just who I am and who I’ve always been at my core.
So my hope is that what you gain from this episode is far more valuable than any tip or tool that I can share. Because although the tips and tools are helpful and necessary, the tips and tools don’t lead to the magic, you lead to the magic.
And I just want to add in a little disclaimer before I get started. I am an emotional human being and there are many parts of my journey that still make me feel some serious emotion. You’re going to hear my voice waiver at times. You’re going to hear me talking through tears. I want you to know that it’s okay to feel it all alongside me. You don’t have to hold in your emotions. Please allow yourself to feel them and process them.
Alright, let’s dive in!
Even though it was well over a decade ago, I still remember the day that I was diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia. I was standing in my therapist's office, after just having a session with her, and she handed me a piece of paper to bring to the check-out window to schedule my next appointment with her, and to also schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist to discuss medication. At this time, I was struggling with panic attacks on a daily basis and the panic and fear had begun to affect my everyday life. I was having a hard time going to work, and school, and just leaving my house to do everyday things.
I took the piece of paper and I walked to the check-out window to schedule my appointments. And as I stood in line, I glanced down at the piece of paper in my hand and saw my diagnoses written by my therapist… “Severe panic disorder and agoraphobia.” I instantly felt the tears well up in my eyes. I put on my sunglasses and handed the receptionist the piece of paper. And as soon as I got in my car, I cried uncontrollably.
Panic disorder and agoraphobia weren’t new terms to me. My mom struggled with both when she was in her early twenties. And she hadn’t shared much of her struggles with me, but she had shared some, and I knew that anxiety ran pretty prevalent in our family. She had shared with me that my grandfather struggled with anxiety his entire life, my uncle struggled with anxiety and OCD, and my great-grandmother struggled with severe agoraphobia.
And seeing severe panic disorder and agoraphobia written on a piece of paper with my name on it, well, it somehow made my struggles feel even more real to me. I remember thinking, Yup, I am a complete mess! I already felt so much hopelessness on a daily basis, and this somehow heightened that feeling even more (which I didn’t think was even possible). And even though I already knew what I was struggling with before being formally diagnosed by my therapist, seeing my diagnoses written on paper made me feel incredibly scared. Like somehow being diagnosed changed something, even though it had changed nothing.
I immediately began to think things like… Is this something that I’ll struggle with for the rest of my life? Can I overcome it? What if medication doesn’t work? What if things get worse? What if I can’t continue to work or go to school?
It felt like with one piece of paper, I had just been handed a life sentence of panic and fear. I remember immediately jumping to the thought that what I had been living and experiencing would be what the rest of my life looked like. That these diagnoses would follow me around for the rest of my life and prevent me from living. And of course at the time it made sense for me to think and feel this way. I was so in it, and I really couldn’t see outside of what I was up against every day. I was just trying my best to survive.
At the time I was working full-time and I was also in college full-time. I often overwhelmed myself and took on too much. Also around this time I had gotten out of a really unhealthy and toxic relationship which had devastating effects on my mental, emotional, and physical health. I basically lived in a constant stressed state. It felt like my body and brain could never find any sense of calm. I fought to continue to function “normally.”
And although I wanted to call it quits, stay home, and never leave my house, I felt like it wasn’t an option for me. Because on the other side of the fear I was facing every day, I was also facing the fear of what was on the other side if I stopped going to work and school. I was so scared that if I stopped going places, that was it. The anxiety, panic, and fear would win and it would ultimately trap me in my home and keep me stuck forever. So I kept going, and going, and going.
And one day while at work, my body said enough is enough. And I had one of the worst panic attacks I had ever experienced. I experienced essentially all of the symptoms one can experience during a panic attack… Shaking, sweating, palpitations, dizziness, weak legs, muffled sounds in my ears, blurry vision, vomiting, and diarrhea. Yeah, it all hit me at once. This panic attack landed me in the emergency room. And this panic attack shook me to the core. After this panic attack, I had an even more intense fear of feeling anxious. Any sensation, symptom, or off feeling would inevitably lead to panic.
Out of thousands of panic attacks, only a handful looked like this one. But my entire life began revolving around trying to prevent myself from experiencing panic attacks like the worst ones I had experienced. I began grasping onto control in any and all places and situations. Because in my mind, having more control to me equaled safety. I began to isolate, and avoid, and beat myself up on a daily basis. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. And I began making really unhealthy choices, like drinking lots of alcohol, smoking pot, and avoiding, all in an attempt to escape what I was struggling with.
And one of the hardest parts was that everyday things, things like walking outside, driving, and being home alone began to feel like a risk. I would often think… How did I get here? How did I turn into this person?
I began to believe that I was broken and not worthy of support or love. I began to believe that recovery wasn’t possible for me. That I was different. That my story would end in tragedy rather than what you see today.
I want to share with you what panic disorder and agoraphobia looked like for me.
For me, panic disorder looked and felt like…
Being convinced that I’d experience a panic attack everywhere I went and I wouldn’t be able to “handle” it.
Always having an exit strategy.
Being scared to be in situations or places that others didn’t blink an eye at, like waiting in lines, being in traffic, being in stores, being at work, going on dates, riding in cars or on public transportation, and sometimes just sitting at home.
Constantly battling with my thoughts and wishing them away.
Always anticipating and creating the worst case scenario in my head.
Wanting people to be around in case I panicked and needed help, but also not wanting anyone to see me panic because it would be so embarrassing.
Experiencing symptoms that made me feel like there was something really wrong with me and that it couldn’t be “just” anxiety.
Constantly worrying that the symptoms would lead to a panic attack, me losing all control, or taking a trip to the ER.
Wanting to be adventurous but never feeling as though I was truly capable.
Constantly feeling on edge and scared, sometimes not even knowing why.
Having so many irrational and scary fears.
Being frustrated and angry with myself for being “the way I was.”
For me, agoraphobia looked and felt like… All of the above, plus…
Wanting to stay home but also wanting so badly to go out and enjoy doing things.
Being jealous of “normal” people doing “normal” things.
Being filled with so much anticipatory anxiety that I’d bail on plans and feel so disappointed in myself.
Wanting to share what I was struggling with but also worrying that if I did, people would think that I was crazy.
Not even feeling at peace in my own home because the chaos and fear was in my own brain.
Panicking at work, in cars, on public transportation, in stores, while trying to hide it from everyone around me.
Being afraid that I would have to quit my job and not be able to financially support myself.
Feeling so angry about missing out on opportunities and just life in general.
Feeling as though I was weak, incapable, and dependent on others to do the simplest things.
Always questioning myself, and not believing in myself or my capabilities.
And on top of all of that, I also had so many fears. I often feared passing out, and dying or my loved ones dying, and going crazy, and being trapped and losing all control, and pooping my pants, and the list goes on. Some rational, but some very irrational. And although I knew that many of them weren’t rational fears, it didn’t take the fear or the scary feelings away.
Do any or all of these things resonate with you? If any of it does, I want you to really hear me… I understand. And so many others understand, too.
You aren’t alone. You aren’t crazy, or broken, or undeserving of love, peace, and joy. And struggling with panic disorder and agoraphobia isn’t your destiny. Panic disorder and agoraphobia are things that you can overcome. I know that it might feel impossible, especially some days, but being diagnosed with panic and agoraphobia isn’t a life sentence. And it’s okay if you don’t believe this right now. I didn’t believe it for a long time. But something that held me back for a long time was not challenging the stories that I was telling myself.
I want you to start to listen to the stories you’re telling yourself. Because the stories we tell ourselves are often far from the truth. They often don’t acknowledge who we actually are, what we’re capable of, how far we’ve come, and the strength and wisdom that we have inside of ourselves. Start paying attention. Because developing awareness is such a huge part of the recovery journey.
And when you find yourself telling yourself that you suck, or that you aren’t capable, or that there’s something wrong with you, I want you to acknowledge this truth. The recovery journey is hard. But when things feel hard, it’s often because they are hard. Let the journey be hard without it meaning anything about you, your abilities, or your future.
Because the truth is, you are amazing right now. You aren’t working towards becoming a different or a better person. You’re working towards healing which will in turn shine your light even brighter and in ways that you can’t even imagine is possible.
If you haven’t heard me say this before, I want to take a minute and say it now… Anxiety, panic disorder, or agoraphobia can’t take away all of the amazing parts of you. Your adventurous spirit, your creativity, your intelligence, your braveness, your dreams, your future. All of the amazing parts of you are in there! You just gotta keep taking healthy action to reignite all of those amazing parts of you and create the life you want and deserve to live! You choose your path. You choose whether or not you move forward and heal. Not anxiety, not panic, not anyone or anything else!
And you might look at me and think… Shannon, you’re an exception. It’s just not how my life will end up. I know, because I would have thought this too. But the truth is, I’m just a human being just like you. And yeah, I'm pretty darn special, but so are you. But I didn’t recover because I’m special. I recovered because I put in the work. I recovered because I stopped allowing fear to decide. I recovered because deep down, I knew that the stories that I was telling myself were bullshit. I knew the stories were being created by me and could be rewritten by me. And so I began rewriting my story. And I continue to write how I want the story to unfold.
And sure, there is resistance and bumps along the way because that’s life and I’m human. But when I experience resistance and bumps, I respond to them in a healthy way. And I keep on taking healthy action.
I recently shared a reel of a trip that I took with my family a month or so ago. We drove 6 hours from Maine to New York City. And on the trip, I drove, I rode as a passenger, I ate Chipotle in the car, I sat in traffic, I rode the train multiple times, I walked around the city… All without experiencing anxiety or panic. Back when I was struggling, did I ever think that this would be possible? Absolutely not.
And last fall, we took a trip to Arizona. I flew on an airplane. I rode in cars, including a drive from Sedona to the Grand Canyon. I hiked. I explored. And I did it all without anxiety or panic.
I want to include a really important reminder here. In recovery, it’s not about doing things without experiencing anxiety or panic. Anxiety or panic will likely be present (even really present) while facing the hard stuff. And it’s okay for anxiety to be present. The more you allow yourself to feel anxious and continue to do the things anyway, the more your brain will learn that you are safe and not in danger. Trust me, my recovery was full of anxiety and panic!
But I want you to know and see what’s possible. Because the girl who was crying uncontrollably in her car after being diagnosed with severe panic disorder and agoraphobia is the girl you are hearing from today. Yes, I’ve changed, but at my core I am still who I’ve always been. Amazing, powerful, and capable. Don’t wish who you are away. Because who you are now is going to lead you to an even more amazing version of you.
Alright, this is the part where I encourage you to keep taking healthy action. And I hope that this episode has reinforced why I say this sentence so often.