Updated: May 5, 2019
When I see people discussing panic disorder and anxiety online, the same question always pops up, that question is “Is it possible to ever fully recover?” and the answer usually goes one of two ways; it’s normally either a “no, you just learn to deal with it better” as naturally the people being asked the question are those still suffering and that's all they know, for why else would you be a member of these groups? Or alternatively, if you ask a therapist the same question, they will provide a hesitant answer which is usually something along the lines of "in some cases" however it's important to note that psychologists and therapists are bound by legal regulations and a code of ethics, they can't give out false hope or 100% ever say what will happen one way or the other. Due to the answers this question usually conjures up, many people currently living with a panic disorder fully believe that they will suffer with it for the rest of their lives; however, if you had asked me and the many others who have also recovered, the answer would have been yes, absolutely! On the other hand, you may have already come across a select few people who have recovered from panic but you think it's only for the lucky ones or that they've finally found the right medication, or maybe it just seems too good to be true. So, what does it mean to fully recover? What does it feel like? Do you still experience bad days? Can it come back?
What Recovery Isn’t
Below are some examples of what I believe many people probably think of as recovery but aren’t, in my opinion. Having said that, some of these states are in fact close to recovery or huge milestones on the way to achieving it, but they aren't signs of absolute recovery itself.
What recovery isn’t:
Taking medication which has removed all panic attacks and symptoms (although this is amazing)
Being able to stop panic attacks from happening when they arrive (This is a huge step in recovery but this isn't the end goal.)
Lucky or by accident. It takes a lot of time and effort. (If your panic attacks have miraculously gone away after trying something once, great, but I don’t believe this will last, although I hope it does.)
Fragile/Temporary. Recovery is stable, if you have truly recovered, it cannot come back and thus, you don't feel fragile and like one wrong move and you'll be back at square one. If you're touching wood or counting your blessings it hasn't returned yet, you aren't quite there yet.
What Is True Recovery?
This is a simple concept: true recovery is when you no longer have a panic disorder. This is when all symptoms have gone and won't come back; your mental health is as it was prior to your panic disorder. Having said that, this is much more than simply not having any more panic attacks or physical anxiety symptoms; it is having fully overcome the fear of the physical experience of panic attacks so that even if hypothetically you experienced another physical symptom right now, it would not scare you and it would pass immediately, it is being put in the most “triggering” situation you can imagine that previously set you off and not experiencing a single symptom, nor having any thoughts about it. You have no obsessive thoughts about panic attacks or your health, so even when you’re feeling physically perfect and not panicking, you’re thinking like other people who don’t have a panic disorder, about real-life issues, rather than about why you feel good physically. A perfect way to sum the way I feel now is that I take my good mental health for granted. I do not touch wood whenever I think about it or count my blessings a particular day is panic attack free, this is because it wasn’t luck, I have beaten it so it can’t come back and so I don’t have to pray.
Frequent Anxious Questions
Is recovery a realistic goal?
I know this may sound too good to be true, you may be thinking I probably didn't have it that bad, but I can tell you now, I had a severe panic disorder, I had full blown panic attacks all day every day and when I wasn't panicking, I was obsessing about it. It got to the point where I would wake up in the morning and for 10 seconds, I would be free, then I would remind myself I have a panic disorder and the day was ruined just like that. It was so bad that at that very same moment I prayed the day would be over already so I could go back to sleep and never wake up. I have no idea how I wasn't extremely depressed or suicidal, but it's probably because I didn't have any space left to think about anything else, that's not to say I didn't have constant anxiety and panic attacks about that happening. Therefore, the answer to the question is yes, if I was able to fully recover, I don't see why anyone else can't.
"It sounds too good to be true"
I wish I could say that recovery isn't all it's cracked to be and that it never fully goes away because that would be so much more believable and seem more attainable. Full recovery, considering the state you're in now, is some sort of joke, it's laughable, recovery isn't for people like me who go through what I go through. If only. I honestly felt exactly the same, I thought I had it worse than anyone else, I thought that maybe some people could put it behind them but not me, I thought I was stuck with it for the rest of my life, but even I fully recovered. Experiencing a panic disorder really is one of the worst things anyone can ever go through, and because it is so awful, it’s hard to ever believe anyone comes out the other side, but they do; I did and many others have.
Do you still have bad days?
No. My life is like anyone else’s who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder. No, I don’t have bad days. I don’t have any. I don’t feel fragile, I’m in complete control. I know that they can never come back because I’m completely over the fear of them. I do not spend my days obsessing about them, I think about normal things like work and family and making plans for the weekend. I drink alcohol too, I go on nights out. I haven’t become a recluse. I don’t have to live my life differently in order to prevent panic disorder coming back.
Do you still think a lot about panic disorder after it's gone?
Prior to starting this website, no. I didn’t spend any time thinking about my panic disorder. Occasionally, every so often, as in once every few months something would remind me about that time I had it and those awful years at University, and I would be so grateful for my health, but in those same moments I didn’t have to touch wood and pray it didn’t happen again, because I had fully recovered from it. I was simply grateful for finding a way out of it. It was no longer an obsession, it no longer took up any of my daily head-space; I didn't have to plan my life around it and I no longer refused to do certain things because of panic because there wasn't any, I could do whatever I wanted to do, my life was normal again, 100% normal.
Since starting the website, yes. I now write blog posts about it and help people via panic support sessions so I think about it every day but in a constructive way so I can use it to help others.
Can it come back?
No. Maybe you'd experienced zero panic symptoms for months and all of a sudden it has come flooding back, why? From my experience, it’s because it never really went away in the first place. I’m not doubting that you really didn’t have any attacks for months, I mean that this was probably pretty lucky or circumstantial i.e. you had other stresses or focuses in your life that managed to take your mind off your panic but something has “triggered” it to come back; but it hasn’t come back, because it never went away in the first place. The only way to overcome panic attacks and a panic disorder is by overcoming the fear of the physical experience of them, if you are truly over the physical sensation of a panic attack, you cannot have one. Therefore, if your panic attacks come back, you were never truly over the fear of them in the first place, and so you hadn’t recovered.
Full recovery is possible and achievable for anyone with panic disorder, but it takes time and a lot of perseverance. If you're interested in a panic peer support session with me, please see the "Peer Support" tab at the top of this page.
Thanks for reading!