THE BLOG
10/10/2018 15:41 EDT | Updated 10/12/2018 11:51 EDT

My Panic Disorder No Longer Stops Me From Living Out My Dreams

"Having a mental health condition does not define you."

Writer Sarah Fielding is all smiles when she's travelling.
Sarah Fielding
Writer Sarah Fielding is all smiles when she's travelling.

I was lying on the floor of the bathroom, face angled towards the toilet, a week before a big flight. My body was on fire and any movement made me feel overwhelmed with nausea. Everything felt like a blur apart from one consistent thought: I was making a huge mistake.

I was about to pack up my life in New York and head to the other side of the world for who knows how long. With Australia as my base, I had plans upon plans for all the things I wanted to see. Yet, in that moment on my bathroom floor, I didn't want any of it. I couldn't believe I had ever thought it was a good idea.

After it felt like I was having a heart attack, my panic subsided and I fell into a restless sleep. The next morning, the doubt was gone and, a week later, I got on a plane and headed Down Under.

It's been over 10 months since I became overwhelmed with panic on that bathroom floor. It's been 10 months since I left home and moved to the other side of the world from all my friends and family. And, most importantly, it's been 10 months since I found the strength to overcome my panic disorder and get on the plane.

I'd love to say that it ended with that strength, a single moment of bravery and I was fine. Well, as anyone with a mental illness can tell you, it doesn't work like that. This isn't the story about how I conquered my panic disorder in that moment to come travelling, it's about how I've coped with my panic disorder every day since.

Making lots of new friends here 👌🏻

A post shared by Sarah Fielding (@sarahfielding_) on

My mental health journey

My journey with mental health started in October 2016, when I was diagnosed with a panic disorder. After dealing with a lifetime of incidents in which I felt like I was dying, I learned I suffered from panic attacks. I wasn't dying, my body just felt like it was. The constant doubts and worries in my mind? Those were a manifestation of anxiety. Every time I felt swallowed by a cloud of grey? I was experiencing a low grade depressive episode.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience spontaneous seemingly out-of-the-blue panic attacks and are very preoccupied with the fear of a recurring attack.

"Panic attacks occur unexpectedly, sometimes even when waking up from sleep. Panic disorder usually begins in adulthood (after age 20), but children can also have panic disorder and many children experience panic-like symptoms ('fearful spells')," according to the association.

While it can feel quite isolating when you're experiencing a panic attack, it's far more common that I ever knew. Stats Canada reports that 12-month and lifetime prevalence rates are 1.6 per cent and 3.7 per cent, respectively, for those who experience panic disorders. And women are twice as likely to develop the disorder than men.

The way my psychiatrist explained the condition made me feel as if every thought I ever had finally made sense. She broke it down into anxiety, panic, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and depression. My doctor described how a panic disorder can manifest through obsession over when the next panic attack will come. And someone may find themselves having depressive episodes, as well as a strong sense of anxiety when they have panic disorder.

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Down under, not down and out

In December 2017, when I was getting ready to leave for Australia, I had been on anti-anxiety, anti-depressant medication for over a year. And I had spent just as long learning a variety of coping mechanisms. I was more in control of my mental health than ever before and I was ready for adventure.

When I arrived in Sydney, it felt as if every doubt I'd had was for nothing. I immediately met lots of cool people in my hostel, found a place to live and was overjoyed to have summer in December.

But then I moved into a shared house and realized my panic disorder had only taken a temporary back seat. The second I moved in, nothing was how I expected it to be. My anxiety flared, panic overtook me and I moved out as quickly as I had moved in. It was a new experience, with new people and I found it too overwhelming.

And I quickly realized that it's in those moments of doubt that the panic has risen. There are moments where I can feel the entire essence of my panic disorder, floating around the surface of my brain, looking for any opening to let itself in. Will anyone like me? Should I go somewhere else? Is this all a mistake? Is it time to go home? These are the questions it presses me to ask.

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Try not to panic about your panic attacks

I needed to learn how to deal with it. What works for someone won't necessarily work for everyone, so trying different things can make a huge difference. Try not to get too down if the first few things don't work, it will take time. Once you find those tricks, dealing with a panic disorder will become infinitely easier.

If you're struggling with a panic disorder, the most important first step is finding the strength to get help. While it may seem easier to deal with on your own, having support is important. So is acceptance of your mental health.

If there's one thing I've learned while travelling, it's that you can't run from yourself. No matter where you are, what you see, and what you do, you're still, at your core, you. And having a mental health condition does not define you. For me, it helped me to better understand myself and others.

I'm thankful everyday that I got on that plane and refused to let my panic disorder control me. I refuse to let it write the narrative of my time abroad. My panic disorder is something I'll have to deal with no matter where in the world I go. The most I can do is refuse to allow it to stop me from doing the things I love.

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