One Man’s Journey with Health Anxiety and Panic Disorder
When I was six years old my Dad was putting up Christmas lights on our house when his left arm started to hurt for no apparent reason. He drove himself to the hospital where he got checked out and was told he was ok. The hospital was just about to discharge him when our family doctor stopped by to see him. The doctor knew my Dad was the kind of guy that would only go to the hospital if something was seriously wrong, so he decided to run some additional tests. It turned out that my Dad had major arterial blockages and needed bypass surgery. That doctor saved his life and because of him, my Dad is still with us today. Even though everything turned out good in the end, this one event created the beginning of fractures in my psyche that would eventually lead to a complete breakdown 28 years later.
After my Dad recovered, our family doctor thought it would be a good idea to do blood work on my sister and I. It turned out we have hereditary high cholesterol and unless it was managed we were destined for heart disease as well. I started to take various supplements and prescriptions from a young age and my cholesterol has been adequately controlled since. Even though my cholesterol is under control, having to worry about it as I grew up really shaped how I respond to any abnormal feelings in my body. If anything feels odd between my stomach and my neck, I immediately picture myself falling down dead of a heart attack. Until the last few years, I was always able to brush these thoughts off and continue on with my day to some extent.
As I entered my thirties, things changed. I was getting much closer to the age that my Dad was when he had his heart problem. Now if I felt anything odd happen in my body I would dwell on it and the feelings would get worse. On multiple occasions, I was sure I was about to have a heart attack and die. I would start breathing heavy, get dizzy, have tunnel vision and feel like I was going pass out. At least twice I went to the hospital to get the full range of tests done. Of course, all the results came back that I was perfectly healthy and in no imminent danger of having a heart attack. Even with the reassurance, I didn’t believe them. I just knew they had to be missing something. After having to reassure me many times that my heart was healthy, my family doctor diagnosed me with health anxiety and panic disorder.
I thought having this diagnosis would have made it easier, but for the first eight months or so, it only made it worse. My health was all I could think about. I became obsessive compulsive about it. I would constantly check my pulse and my blood pressure, which would only make my pulse and my blood pressure rise! It became a never-ending cycle of anxious thoughts and panic attacks. I quickly went from a fully functional husband and father to a shell of a person who couldn’t be left alone without panicking. Thank God my wife was there for me and helped me come to the realization I needed help.
Over a year period, I started to put together a toolkit that would slowly help me put my life back together. The following tools are what have worked for me in controlling my anxiety and panic issues:
Over many months I worked with my doctor on a trial and error process to find the right combination of anti-depressant medication to help me manage my anxiety levels
I started to see a therapist to discuss my mental health issues. This helped me to really put things into perspective. My therapist really helped me to realize what I can and cannot control in my life and how to prevent my pot of water from boiling over.
Mental Health Reading Resources
I looked into various books and programs that teach anxiety sufferers how to handle their anxiety. The one that I found to help me the most was “Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks” by Barry McDonagh. He has lots of great tips on how to manage these issues, but the one major item I learned from the book is that I have to run towards the things that make me anxious. For example, once I started having panic attacks I became deathly afraid of running. I was so afraid of having another panic attack that I went from running half marathons to barely being able to run 100 yards. This leads me to my next and most favorite tool in my kit.
Running and Exercise
After learning that I needed to run towards the things that cause my anxiety, I knew I had to get over my fear of exercise and get back to running. It took me most of 2017 to get over my fear. During this time I would still feel anxious about my health whenever I exercised, but I promised myself I would continue on with it. In November of 2017 many of the great folks in the Still I Run Facebook group decided to do the 40 day run streak from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day together. My wife and I decided to participate. During this time is when I finally felt that I have come to a really good place with my running. After day 40 I couldn’t stop. The fear of breaking my streak has driven me to run, even when sick or pressed for time. I am now past 110 days of running in a row. Each day I run at least a mile and truly am able to enjoy it most days. It really helps me to keep my focus and clear my thoughts.
It has been a very interesting journey and I am very thankful for the strength that it has given me. I know each of us has a different experience with our mental health issues, but I hope by sharing more information on my personal experience helps others to realize they are not alone. We can all get through this.
God Bless and run on!
Michael Camilleri is one of six Still I Run ambassadors for 2018. He’s been a huge advocate for this community since the very beginning, Fall of 2016. Around the time he found Still I Run, he was suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks. He now considers the phrase “Still I Run” his battle cry and even has a tattoo of the arrow logo on his calf. Running is one of the most important tools in the arsenal he uses to maintain his mental health and manage his anxiety.