By Ella Mona
I experienced my first panic attack when I was only nine years old. It happened out of the blue, while I was in school, and I didn't know what was happening to me. All of a sudden, I couldn't breathe. I stuck my head out the window to catch my breath, assuming the difficulty breathing was due to allergies. When my breathing did not improve, I ran into the hallway, where I fell to the ground, overwhelmed and feeling intense pain all over my body. I didn't faint, but I felt light-headed and dreadful.
My nine-year-old self immediately thought, "I'm dying!"
The school wanted to call an ambulance, but they reached my parents first, and my mom rushed to my rescue. She knew how much I was suffering from bullying and stress at the time, and she attributed my symptoms to a panic attack.
Thankfully, I got into therapy almost immediately after the incident. I was initially diagnosed with claustrophobia; however, through my work in therapy, I have learned that the claustrophobia was just a manifestation of my fears and problems. My behavior was always caused by an underlying stress — in this case, being bullied — rather than being about small spaces. In fact, sometimes I would be in a large room, but I would escape to a smaller space so I could have a reason to break down and externalize the pain I was feeling.
Today, I’m still working with my therapist who is a wonderful woman. With her, I can discuss everything that is on my mind, and usually feel much better after the session. We don’t reach solutions right away, but I’ve found that for every problem, sooner or later, I will find an answer or a way to cope.
I’m 14 years old now, and a lot has changed in the past five years. The bullying stopped, and I no longer have claustrophobia or the urge to incite my own panic. But I still face mental health challenges.
My panic attacks continue, but they have evolved to coincide with new triggers — including crowds of people, how others talk to me, certain words or the volume at which someone speaks to me. This can be difficult to manage, as certain people and teachers at school also trigger me. It may seem odd to others, but these triggers can change on a weekly basis.
My symptoms have also begun to feel different; I no longer hyperventilate, but at times, it feels like my nerves go haywire — like lightning strikes my body. Sometimes, my hands and legs start shaking. Other times, panic attacks will take the form of a severe headache or aching limbs, with a roaring in my ears or abdominal pains and cramps. Despite the frustrations of living with panic attacks, I have seized the opportunity to become an expert on my own condition.
Over time I’ve gotten better at identifying and coping with each type of panic attack. I always have an emergency kit with natural sedatives, like chamomile, at hand. I have learned that walking up and down the hallway often helps me to self-soothe and recenter. I’ve even established a kind of internal “reference book” containing the different types of attacks and the appropriate responses. I know exactly when drinking a glass of water and sitting on the sofa works — or when running around the school building a few times is best.
Perhaps the most important step I have taken is learning to calm myself down. As a nine-year-old, I let my fears consume me. Now, I say to myself, "Okay, Ella, you're having a panic attack now. Lie down, read a page in your book and then move on.” This kind of relaxing and letting go consciously takes practice — but it has dramatically changed my quality of life.
Looking back, I would advise little Ella: "Go on with your life. Find people you like and trust, talk to them." I’m fortunate to have my family — and I know not everyone has that support. But I hope that those who don’t have family support can talk to friends, school counselors or even a pet. Speaking thoughts out loud and validating your emotions (while realizing that your fears may not be real) is key.
As I’ve navigated my recovery journey, I’ve continued to speak up about my experience. I want people to know that they are not alone. Recovery takes time and it is not always linear.
Being vocal about my mental health gave me the chance to join a mental health startup called Earkick— an app designed to help people track their anxiety and better understand what coping mechanisms work best for them. As I reflected on my own journey, I realized that I had a chance to use my experience to help others.
What began as a few phone calls eventually turned into my heart’s project. I love this work — figuring things out and tinkering with solutions. This app has also helped me personally; sometimes, when I’m having a panic attack, I do a voice recording on the app so I can listen to my thoughts and determine that my perceptions don’t necessarily represent reality. They are just thoughts, not facts. And I am not my thoughts.
Ultimately, I want to go on to college and create a startup of my own. I’ve been through a lot, but I’m learning to make the best of it and use my experience to help others.
Ella Mona is a 14-year-old student. In her free time, she works as Junior Product Manager for Earkick, a digital mental health startup. She has lived in Buenos Aires, San Francisco and Zurich with her parents and a younger brother. Her heart beats for sports and entrepreneurship.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.
Find Your Local NAMI