It's been almost ten years and I can still tell you exactly what happened. I was eating popcorn, watching the coming attractions, and waiting for X-Men Origins: Wolverine to start in a small movie theater in Ashland, Virginia.
I remember that I thought it was heartburn at first. I was mildly uncomfortable and I tried to wash this feeling in my chest away with soda. The movie started with a series of flashbacks and fight scenes, but I was struggling to keep up with it all because my heart started beating fast. I put down my popcorn and put my hand on my chest trying to figure out what was going on. That's when the heartburn feeling started to feel like a heavy pressure on my chest. I couldn't catch my breath. Here I am sitting in a dark movie theater with fake butter on my fingers and my heart is beating a mile a minute, my chest had an invisible cinder-block pinning it down, and I felt like I was breathing through a straw. My first thought, "I'm having a heart attack."
I turned to my friend and whispered, "There's something wrong." We left the theater, got in the car, and drove to the student health center at our school. On the way, I called my mom to tell her there was something wrong with my heart. If you're reading this and you think that at 19-years-old I had my first heart attack, then you, like anyone who experiences a panic attack, are wrong.
At 19, without any warning, while I sat watching one of the many not-so-great X-Men sequels, I experienced my first, very terrifying panic attack, which started me down a long road of isolation and avoidance. After multiple panic attacks (all of which I thought were mild heart attacks) and just as many doctors visits, I stopped many of my normal activities for fear of having another attack. It was two full years before I could go into a movie theater again, and I still never saw the end of X-Men Origins.
There were so many different things I tried to avoid because I thought they would bring on another attack. I stopped eating until I was really full because I worried that a full stomach would somehow interrupt my normal heart function. I stopped going to the gym for fear of physical activity causing my heart to beat too fast. I avoided parties, drinking, and going far away from my dorm room. I started compulsively checking my pulse and making sure that it was normal. I became hyper-focused on any subtle physiological sensations that were even the slightest bit different from the norm. I even tried to avoid thinking about my heart as if my thoughts would make it beat too fast.
It wasn't until a year later when I took my first psychology class in undergrad that I started to understand what was going on with me. After six months of reading about anxiety, learning how the mind and body communicate, and understanding that there is a diagnosis for what I had been experiencing for over a year (Panic Disorder) that I was able to stop the panic attacks from happening. I haven't had a panic attack since.
If you are currently experiencing panic attacks or you know someone who is, one-on-one therapy is very helpful in overcoming this disorder. One of the best books on this subject that I've read is titled When Panic Attacks by David Burns. In his book, Burns provides an in-depth explanation of why many individuals experience panic disorder, and he gives some great exercises to help relax the mind and body when you feel an attack coming on.
My advice? Breathe through it. Slow, long, deep breaths.
If you enjoyed this post, many others will follow. One-Way Mirror is a blog about mental health and a few of us who have struggled and continue to struggle with it. Our hope is that writing about our own experiences will help strip away the stigma associated with mental illness and psychological treatment.
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