My sophomore year of college didn’t start the way I expected it to. I arrived on campus, ready to jump back into the same routine I had freshman year: go to class, meet a friend for a meal, do homework, go to the gym, attend sorority meetings and other extracurriculars, go to bed, and repeat. But a few weeks into the semester, I started getting easily overwhelmed and anxious on a daily basis.
For me, it started with hyperventilation, inability to catch my breath and focus on the task at hand. I felt as though my chest was tightening and the world around me was closing in. My body started to shake uncontrollably and I couldn’t stop sweating out of nervousness. It was one of the most intense and terrifying things I have ever experienced. I knew something wasn’t right, so I made an appointment with a psychiatrist, only to find out I was diagnosed with panic disorder. The intense reactions I was having to daily situations were panic attacks.
Since October of 2014, I have had several panic attacks while on campus, which often lead to a call to my mom or therapist. Being in the same time zone and having them be only a free phone call away makes it painless. But when I decided to study abroad for the fall of my junior year in London, I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.
I considered not going abroad, in fear that having a panic attack while overseas would be detrimental to the progress I had made. After extensive talks with my therapist, I decided that spending a semester abroad was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and that as long as those close to me were made aware of my disorder and could be informed on how to help me if something were to happen, I’d be okay.
Studying abroad is all about experiencing new things, trying something different, and exploring new places, cultures, and activities. While abroad, I was often hesitant about trying something new because I worried it would result in an anxiety or panic attack. Looking back on my time abroad, I was fortunate to only experience two panic attacks. Sometimes they were about something major, and other times not so much. I’ve experienced both kinds. I don’t normally sense when I am about to have an attack, although if I am already feeling anxious about a situation and don’t do anything about it, I may experience one. But because of these panic attacks as well as previous ones, I have learned how to at least attempt to calm myself down and get myself through it. I have tried to think positively when facing a situation that entails a new decision or task.
Looking back on my experience abroad, the important thing I’ve learned in terms of having panic disorder is that everything will pass. Yes, in the moment it is terrifying and feels as though I am about to die, but if I believe in myself and realize that I have been through this before and everything ended up okay, then I am able to get through the attack all by myself.
There will always be a time in life where we face new experiences and challenges, and for someone with panic disorder, these times are especially difficult. But I can’t and won’t let my panic disorder decide how I tackle these new times, because if I do, I’ll never be able to live in the moment and experience all that life has to offer.