Please welcome our newest guest blogger Justin Matheson. His honest stories about his struggles with anxiety, social phobia and panic disorder and the ways he has overcome them caught our attention. He is now studying to be a professor of psychiatry in college. We have a complete Bio at the end of this post.
We warmly welcome him for all of our followers for this and future posts.
My struggles with social phobia and panic disorder
By Justin Matheson
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders afflict about 18% of the adult American population. I’m sure you’ve heard figures like this before – anxiety is a widely reaching phenomenon. What you may not know is how debilitating those anxiety disorders can really be. Most of us who suffer from one of the major anxiety disorders hide our struggles from the public, choosing to suffer in silence rather than risk being judged. I hid my struggles with anxiety for over a decade, but now I am ready to share my story. I hope it can help others.
I’ve been anxious most of my life. It started as a young child, when I was a definite social phobic in the making. I used to cry very easily and I found it difficult to speak my mind. As I grew up, I learned to avoid the things that made me feel nervous or uncomfortable (like being assertive, talking on the phone, or joining new activities). Through my teenage years, I went through spells of bullying (as most people do) which served to strengthen my burgeoning feelings of social ostracism. I grew painfully aware of how socially awkward I can be, and slowly started to fear meeting new people and being in new situations.
When I started college, things changed. I made lots of great friends. I met loads of cool new people. I tried new things, learned new things, saw new things. My anxiety sat on the back burner as I forced myself to do the things that made me anxious. It seemed for a while that by ignoring my anxiety, I could escape it. I was wrong. Making new friends had afforded me some confidence in my social skills, but I still struggled with answering phones and being assertive. I avoided giving presentations and speaking up in class like the plague. Just the thought of having to speak in front of other people makes my heart race and my palms sweat.
Last Christmas I had my first panic attack. It started early one morning while I was having a cup of coffee (I used to be quite the caffeine hound). I noticed I felt a little “off”, almost like I hadn’t eaten in a while. I shrugged it off for the time being and headed out to Walmart with my parents. As soon as I stepped into the store, I knew something was wrong. I felt immediately uneasy, like something really bad was about to happen. My vision narrowed; I was suddenly unable to focus on anything but myself. My heart started racing, my breathing became labored, and my body went through rapid hot and cold flashes. I ran out of that store as fast as I could, tears spraying out my eyes (I cry every time I have a panic attack – you’d think it would get easier, right?).
Since that first panic attack, I’ve been constantly worried about having another one. And I have – several times. As much as it continues to amaze me, each one is as terrifying as the last.
The panic was held at bay for most of last year. This past semester, I had started my honors thesis and was working a part-time job, all while juggling a regular course-load. Some weeks were harder than others, but on average I was putting in about 50-60 hours a week between being in the lab, being at work, attending classes (which I do quite infrequently), and studying (which usually means catching up). I wasn’t the busiest person in the world, but the pressure started getting to me nonetheless. Finally, I snapped. Finals hit, and I just couldn’t handle my responsibilities anymore. I started having nightly panic attacks. It got harder and harder to just get out of bed in the morning. The instant I woke up, I was thrust back into a state of alarm. I started missing work, blowing off lab meetings, skipping classes that I knew were mandatory. In November, a psychiatrist slapped the official diagnosis of panic disororder on my forehead. And here we are.
As I’ve learned in abnormal psychology class, panic disorder is characterized by frequent, unpredictable panic attacks with accompanying anticipatory anxiety (the worry that another panic attack will strike). That definition sounds very cold and clinical to me. It fails to mention the hours spent sobbing because I’m too scared to go through a check-out line at the supermarket. It ignores the anger and frustration I feel and all the times I lash out at my loved ones because I can’t control myself. It leaves out the part where I feel pathetic because I can’t sit in a car for more than a couple hours without having a panic attack. It omits the hours I spend trying to calm myself down every day so that I can put on a smile and seem “normal.”
Living with an anxiety disorder is difficult. It’s hard to explain to other people why I can’t do things sometimes. It’s embarrassing, it’s degrading, and sometimes it’s just plain infuriating. I want to take other people’s advice: I want to calm down and stop worrying about things. But I can’t. Even when I say I’m feeling fine, I’m still not “calm.” I don’t even know what calm feels like anymore.
Over time, however, I’ve come to accept that everyone has their struggles that they must live with; this is mine. There is hope of course – hope that one day I will be back to normal, able to do the things I’ve always wanted to do. That is the light at the end of the tunnel: mental illness can be beat. And I plan on doing just that.
A Brief Bio of Justin Matheson
Justin studies psychology and biotechnology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. When he’s not in school, he likes to cook, go for runs, write horror stories, and watch a lot of supernatural dramas. He hopes one day to become a professor of psychiatry and expert on anxiety disorders. He writes a blog called Anxiety Really Sucks! and can be followed on Twitter @justinrmatheson