‘I often feel like I’m being strangled, like I am stuck in my body just watching over myself’

Abby Brookes, 22, suffers from Panic Disorder. In this revealing interview, she shares her story with Sophie Watson on her ongoing battle with the condition – and how the disorder affects her life.

It’s almost 1am on a Saturday morning, and while what sounds like the rest of the students in Abby Brookes’ new built apartment building are having the time of their lives, she is trying desperately to hold onto hers.

“Remember what your therapist told you. Breathe in for three, hold, breathe out for three. Again,” Abby whispers to herself, as she feels her racing heart beat with her right hand.

She would always do that, feel her heart palpitations, knowing it would only make her symptoms worsen in exactly three, two …

“Why is my heart racing? My whole body feels shaky. Surely that’s not normal,” Abby begins to fill with familiar dread.

“I know this is my brain’s natural reaction to danger, but I’m not in danger. I don’t feel anxious. I’m in bed. My bed is my happy place.”

And that is the wearily familiar narrative that takes place, multiple times a week, multiple times a night, until Abby, trembling from every limb, eventually calms herself down and her symptoms subside – her sweaty palm always resting against her chest as she sleeps. If she can sleep.

“It can only be described as a constant, monotonous cycle of distress and panic that never seems to go away,” Abby says.

You can’t help but wonder if the panic hides in the creases of her fingers and sinks into her veins when she’s not looking, slowly suffocating her entire body into paralysis.

The first time Abby had a major panic attack was when she was 12-years-old.

She was at an aquarium with her mum and they had to go in an elevator, despite Abby being claustrophobic.

The elevator was glass, so they could see all the fish and the sharks, which they enjoyed. But then they suddenly came to a stop on the 10th floor. They were stuck there for half an hour.

“I had a full-blown meltdown. I was crying. My heart was racing. I felt like I was going to be sick in front of all these staring strangers,” Abby says.

“All that because I couldn’t get out. My mum was trying desperately to calm me down but when you’re in that state of mind, it’s almost impossible for the brain to take in information.

“I just felt like something awful was going to happen.”

Despite multiple attempts for a formal diagnosis, Abby was assured she was just experiencing anxiety. It was only when she turned 18 that she was diagnosed with Panic Disorder after being rushed into hospital with crippling chest pains.

During her first year at university, she visited the hospital complaining of chest pains more than 10 times. It was a relief to finally understand what she was experiencing, and why.

“I actually researched Panic Disorder months beforehand and realised it best explained how I felt,” Abby nods firmly.

It’s easy for Panic Disorder to be mistreated as anxiety because it is a form of Anxiety Disorder. They have similar symptoms, such as heart palpitations, worry, and feeling a sense of impending danger. But, for Abby, there is one clear difference.

“Anxiety comes and goes but panic consumes me. I often feel like I’m being strangled, like I am stuck in my body just watching over myself. It’s such a strange and uncomfortable feeling, especially when the attacks are so regular. It’s almost like they become your life,” Abby admits, timidly.

“They come from anywhere. At any time, often without an ounce of warning. One minute I’m out with my friends having a brilliant time, the next I feel overwhelmed with panic and I’m in an Uber back home.”

Certain things can trigger her panic attacks, such as being in small places, around lots of people and insomnia.

“Sometimes I can sense a panic attack coming on because I start getting pins and needles in my legs, and I quickly become to feel quite dizzy and overwhelmed. Before you know it, my coat has come off and I’m burning up,” Abby says, as she rolls up her sleeves.

She would often to this to ensure she didn’t get too warm.

“It can actually be very lonely when your friend rings you up for a catch up and you feel like you can’t tell them how you’re actually feeling,” Abby says, as she looks towards the wall covered in photographs of her best memories with her friends.

“How do you explain to someone that you feel like you’re going to die, when they just saw you laughing yesterday?”

After her diagnosis, Abby decided to seek professional help and referred herself for therapy.
Although she had to wait four months for the initial phone call, she had 10 sessions with an experienced therapist who taught her not only the science behind the panic attacks, but how-to best cope with them.

“Accepting I have Panic Disorder has been the best thing I have done to help me live with it. Not being mad at myself all the time, or confused. Just allowing myself to feel what I feel. It allows the symptoms to subside faster,” Abby says.

“Controlled breathing is also the biggest way to not only prevent an attack, but also to stop it. Meditation is also very useful to me, such as listening to the sound of waterfalls before bed. It’s so relaxing.”

Although Abby has been prescribed traditional medication for her Panic Disorder, she believes CBD products should be prescribed to treat anxiety disorders.

“Prescribed meds didn’t really help me at all. I felt like I was sinking into the floor until I found CBD (cannabidiol) products such as oil and gummies. These are the products that have helped to change my life,” says Abby.

“I feel a lot calmer when I use them. They actually treat my anxiety and reduce stress, in ways which my prescribed meds don’t,” Abby adds.

“My advice for anyone suffering with any of these symptoms, who believe they could have Panic Disorder or something similar, is to seek help. Talk to your doctor, refer yourself for therapy.

“But just as importantly, live your life and enjoy every bit of it. Every second is precious,” says Abby, as her smile spreads across her face, clenching tightly onto the photograph of her and her best friend.

It’s almost 1am on a Saturday morning, and while what sounds like the rest of the students in Abby’s apartment building are having the time of their lives, Abby knows she is doing the best she can to enjoy hers, too.

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