Surviving panic attacks at university

It’s completely normal to have a panic attack at some point in your life. Some people have them occasionally. However, it becomes an issue (a disorder, actually) when they become so frequent and so intense that they have an impact on the quality of your life and your ability to get on with ‘normal’ things.

I’ve suffered from bouts of panic disorder for a few years now. These attacks can happen at any point, but most often occur in the middle of the night, or when I am in a room full of people and feel like I can’t get out. The latter, of course, has caused a few dilemmas at university, particularly in the lecture hall.

It is really embarrassing because people don’t have a clue what’s going through your mind. It’s humiliating for me to think that other people think that I’m ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’ or ‘being dramatic’ when in actual fact my throat is closing up and I’m feeling like I can’t breathe and that if I don’t get outside quickly, I’ll suffocate. They don’t know that I can’t see properly, that I can barely hear anything. Imagine you’re drowning, and everyone else is looking at you telling you to ‘just breathe’.

What I’ve kind of learnt since being at university and being in lecture halls so often (I hadn’t attended assemblies at secondary school for years) is that there’s only two things that I can really do: minimise the likelihood of a panic attack happening, and being brave when it’s over. There’s no point beating myself up about it. It happens, I have this disorder, and it sucks, but it’s much better than it used to be. You never really get used to it, but you do learn to be prepared.

Minimising the likelihood of a panic attack in a lecture

  • Getting a proper night of sleep, especially if the lecture is at 9am. I feel so much more vulnerable when I’m tired, and by sleeping enough it takes the edge off.
  • Getting to the lecture hall 5 minutes early, in order to avoid the rush of people surging in. Me and my friends have been doing this all year and it does save a lot of stress.
  • Sitting where I can get out, preferably the end seat on a row that isn’t too far away from the front. Being able to see the door makes me feel more comfortable.
  • Bringing my essentials: a water bottle, mints, and my tangle toy. I’ve seen quite a few people with fidget cubes, tangles and other things in lectures. I just like having something to distract myself with if there’s a pause in the lecturer talking, or a short break.
  • Taking medication before the lecture, but only if this seems like it would be impossible without. Propranolol and drugs such as diazepam do really help, but they can often be addictive and aren’t really a long-term solution.
  • Talking to people on my course who are in my lectures. It’s just so much more comfortable when you’re surrounded by faces that you know, and it makes me feel safer.
  • Speak to your friends about panic attacks. Let them know why you might have to leave something early, and tell them how they can help you. For me personally, I prefer to be alone when I’m trying to calm down, but there have been occasions where I have passed out during a panic attack, and kind of need some help.

Putting a brave face on 

The hardest thing about suffering from panic attacks, for me, is going back into the situation that the attack occurred. Not only is there the fear that it could happen again (although this unlikely considering how absolutely draining one attack can be), but it’s embarrassing walking back into a lecture hall after you’ve just walked (or stumbled) out. Awkwardly getting back into your seat, putting that fake-earnest face on as you try to get a grasp of what’s happening on. It takes guts. But it’s something that you have to keep trying.

The reality is that anyone who is a decent person isn’t going to think it’s funny or judge you for having anxiety. Lecturers will have seen it all before, and we all either know someone with anxiety, or suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder ourselves. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s bloody brave to struggle with it and just carry on.

I just realised that this is my education and my life, and despite the support I get from disability services for panic disorder, it’s 100% better for me to go back into the lecture hall, stop myself from reinforcing my disorder, and take notes for myself. There are days when this just isn’t an option, where I’m too ill. But as long as I can, I’ll be carrying on fighting and proving to myself that I am so, so much more than an illness.

Thank you to all my new-found friends, and academic tutors, who have supported me this year and helped me so much when I was really struggling with anxiety. I’m continuously working on myself, and I’m so excited to be back to university for Round 2 in September.

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