May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
I lay sprawled across the bed in my cramped apartment, staring incredulously at the book laid out before me. At the top of the page, neatly arranged in a small box labeled “DSM V,” was a vivid reflection of my emotions. My life in a series of symptoms.
Pounding heart. Sweaty palms. Feeling detached from oneself. Fear of losing control or going crazy. 4 or more symptoms to qualify. My symptoms were panic attack symptoms.
I had been experiencing panic attacks for years, and I hadn’t even realized it.
I was 19 years old when I marveled over the psychology textbook that validated my anxiety struggles for the first time in my life. By that age, I had already experienced a litany of mental health issues that had gone noticed, but undiagnosed. I displayed symptoms of anxiety since childhood — a stressed preoccupation with toys I has misplaced, a profound fear of talking to my peers, a maladaptive paranoia about accidentally cursing. My mind had long been a haven for negative thoughts, a paradise for relentless anxiety that slowly infiltrated every aspect of my life.
But no professional had ever formally diagnosed me with anxiety.
Once I entered high school, my anxiety started seeping into every aspect of my life. My heart raced and my palms sweat uncontrollably during exams. I shook and cried over the possibility that I would earn anything less than a perfect score. Once a fearless public speaker and performer, I stammered through Mock Trial practices and wavered through solo auditions, unable to fully savor my passions. My anxiety symptoms left me with a mounting inability to cope with life’s demands.
Still, I received very few answers regarding my increasingly harmful thought process.
I began seeing a specialist who, even after ticking symptom after symptom of anxiety off of a lengthy list, never formally diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder.
Consequently, I began to question the validity of my symptoms, brushing them off as “normal.” Everyone is afraid of tests, I thought. Everyone is afraid of public speaking. Everyone avoids talking on the phone. Everyone’s heart races. Everyone’s breath falls short. Everyone feels anxious.
I ignored the sensation of the world closing in on me. I ignored my fear that maybe I was losing my mind. Despite the fact that I absolutely felt panicked, I convinced myself that I couldn’t possibly be having panic attacks — especially since my brief visits with an anxiety and panic specialist still left me undiagnosed. Maybe my symptoms were too mild. Maybe I was just being dramatic. Maybe I was obsessing over symptoms that weren’t even real. Maybe I was just broken, stuck with a constant slew of mysterious symptoms and unanswered questions for the rest of my life.
But by the time I entered college, it became abundantly clear that others had started worrying about my increasingly anxious behavior.
My roommates wondered why I would fly into a panic over the most insignificant things: temporarily misplacing my phone, receiving an A- on a midterm, struggling through a difficult Mock Trial practice. My professors looked on with concern as I hyperventilated my way through their midterms, even when they constantly (but fruitlessly) reassured me that I was doing just fine in their classes. Everyone around me recognized that my behavior was abnormal, but I didn’t tell a single soul that I thought I had anxiety or panic attacks — because what if I actually didn’t? I hadn’t been able to concretely prove my symptoms with a diagnosis; didn’t that mean my symptoms weren’t valid?
So when I read my panic attack symptoms directly out of my psychology textbook, I received the validation for which I’d been searching for years.
I was immediately awash with a peculiar sense of surprise and relief as I stared at my struggle laid out in black and white; I had been experiencing panic for my entire life.
To this day — three years after learning that I had been experiencing panic attacks — I still have never been formally diagnosed with a particular anxiety or panic disorder. But I have come to fully understand the truth: Receiving a diagnosis may validate anxiety symptoms, but your anxiety symptoms are valid whether or not you have a diagnosis. They were valid when I was a 9-year-old terrified to speak to her classmates, when I was a 12-year-old stammering on the phone, when I was a 16-year-old terrified of singing a solo, when I was a 19-year-old discovering that her symptoms had a name. And my anxiety symptoms are valid now that I’m a 22-year-old who takes psychiatric medication.
I no longer need someone else to prove that what I have experienced for my entire life is real.