Sierra’s Story: Panic Attacks, Anxiety & Coping Techniques

My name is Sierra Gowdy and I’m 19 years old. As I am sitting here right now, I am nervous to write this, but grateful I’ve been given the chance to raise awareness and possibly help someone else. Whether you’re reading this to improve your regular mental state or help you deal with a mental illness of your own, I hope you can take something away from this!

I’m going to tell you about how I learned about my mental illnesses, what there are like for me personally, and things I did that can help. I will cover the topics of depression, anxiety, PTSD, panic attacks, eating disorders, insomnia and chronic fatigue and sensory issues.

I was originally born in Detroit in America. My parents made the choice to move here to Belfast when I was very young as we’d had a few family members here, and figured it’d be much easier to try and start a new life here. The majority of my family lives in America though. This made our family pretty independent from the get go.

Growing up I always felt different or like an outcast, I was a very bubbly, enthusiastic, gullible and innocent kid. I wasn’t good with social ques at all. I started to get bullied frequently which lowered my confidence young. I was taken to many doctors appointments as I had started sleeping terribly and getting nauseous often (around p4). We had lots of tests done and everything and only one doctor ever mentioned anxiety, they asked me if I was nervous about anything and I said “I don’t know.” The subject was dropped and my parents had no idea what to do. My parents both worked full time at pretty miserable jobs so I never wanted to bother them and just got on with it.

Fast forward a good few years and I’m now in secondary school. I’ve been dealing with the same symptoms ever since but just thought I was nervous or “weird” and tried to put it to the back of my head. Come GCSE’s the stress grew and started to get on much. I would get so anxious I would make myself horribly sick, but at the time I still didn’t fully understand that it was anxiety. I would end up having to stay off school and then I would get more stressed and got myself stuck in a horrible cycle until a point where I was completely stuck. I took a whole week off on the week before exams as I had reached a breaking point with stress. 

The morning of the Christmas exams come and this year we were all put into the main hall. I did my first exam but I was so anxious the whole time. As soon as we left the hall I started freaking out, I knew I couldn’t cope if I went back in. I had never ditched school, but in that moment I knew I just had to. I started crying, shaking and really hyperventilating, I didn’t understand what was really happening, my body just went into automatic and I ran out the front doors and all the way home, I blacked out for most of the journey. I spent the rest of the day taking to my parents and crying and feeling deeply scared. That was my first panic attack, but I didn’t know.

I had my first suicide attempt at 15. I went in the next day after a lot of convincing and was pulled aside. The principle and head of year took me to talk to the school councillor. It didn’t really help at the time. We tried loads of things but eventually realised I would have to be home schooled. I went for an interview at Beechcroft but they said taking me on might make my condition worse make me worse because of the state I was in.

We went to doctors to get medication and I tried a variety for a good while but settled on fluoxetine. I eventually came off of it. It worked and gave me fake confidence but I hated being on it, it just made me feel weird and stressed in a different way, like everything I was doing wasn’t actually me.

After I was settled into my home schooling (through PIPS I think) I got an appointment with CAMHS. I have heard a lot of people talk about not benefiting there but I had a really lovely lady called Angela. At the time I really didn’t want to go, I didn’t really ever want to leave my house. We were supposed to be going about CBT but she said that it wasn’t going be enough to pull me out of my situation, so it kind of turned into full therapy. They checked my weight and height regularly and I ended up underweight for a while because I wasn’t eating due to stress. In the end I wish I had utilised my CAMHS appointments properly.

This time in my life was probably my worst, we’d found out my dad had cancer, the side effects of medication would toss me around, my parents were fighting about my situation and both depressed and stressed themselves. There were family deaths, money problems, random drama all the time and I even ran away from home for a week and bunked with people.

Fast forward again and some issue within my homelife had settled. I tried to go back to tech after feeling like I had no future and that I was a failure. I couldn’t continue with it as I gained PTSD symptoms from being in classrooms or quiet places with people I didn’t really know since my panic attack. I had so many breakdowns trying to figure out what I could do, I even considered trying to move back to America to the family I had there but figured that wouldn’t be much better.

I eventually got onto universal credit as I had been trying to get a job for a good while and had no luck as I could barely flesh out my CV. A good few of the GCSE’S I picked couldn’t transfer to home schooling. I didn’t feel great feeling like I had to rely on money that wasn’t even mine but there was nothing else I could do. More and more appointments and traumatic experiences led to me being marked as unfit for work (and I still am to this day). This was when panic attacks were most frequent in my life. My life wasn’t in my hands. The worker that I was assigned to tried to get me to volunteer, go to group activities, follow hobbies get into routines etc. She eventually told me to follow my passion, which is art, and see if I could even try to live off that in the future. I’m still doing my art but there is still a long way to go.

As you probably know, mental illnesses are different for everyone. Everyone’s brain is different so we are affected accordingly. 

When I have a panic attack, I lose the ability to talk, I can’t really move properly and I’m very sensitive to noise due to sensory issues. I get claustrophobic, hyperventilate and I drool as I can’t properly control my body. This also means I usually either start stumbling, have to sit where I am or lie down if able, especially because the hyperventilating causes me to get lightheaded. If someone is doing something that is making it worse, I can’t really communicate that I want them to stop, so it sometimes comes out as a scream or loud noise. Not being able to have control over your voice or body is extremely terrifying, so often when I’m put into a position where I have to speak or do anything that I can’t it sets me off even more. 

For me the best thing that I and people around me can do is just be supportive and patient. Try to lie down and get a blanket for security. I tend to scratch my shin until it goes raw and I don’t realise, so having someone to hold my hand is really helpful. Putting on a light hearted movie in the background at a low volume is also good. I try to regulate my breathing before I start any real coping mechanisms. If someone is with you, having them mimic your breath pattern in a calm way and then slowly bring it down can help (but sometimes I don’t like to even look anyone in the face). Once your breath has slowed, you could say the colours of items around the room in your head, or count the amount of items in a specific colour to help regain control of your mind. When I reach this point, I get myself properly comfortable and just let myself be taken away by a movie. My brain tends to go a bit numb from overstimulation anyways so it’s really important to do the things that really relax and ground you for a good while after the panic attack so you don’t go into a bit of a mental dip. Whether that’s going for walks in nature, taking baths, listening to music or playing an instrument, reading, watching shows, staying off the internet, baking or art, anything you can to calm yourself and appreciate the little things. Again everyone’s panic attacks are different, I would say mine are quite severe, but that does not mean that people who don’t suffer from all of these symptoms don’t feel the same as I do.

When I get in a bout of depression, exhaustion or low motivation, it is really important to allow myself to properly rest for a while and then ease my way back. I find that doing at least one productive thing on down days helps you to feel a bit better and less guilty, even if it takes hours to drag yourself out of bed to do it. You could fold some clothes, take some bottles downstairs, wash your face, throw in a load of laundry, change your sheets organise a bit etc. 

It is also really important to eat well. I find even if I can’t eat a lot, eating healthy really helps me to feel more positive and gives me my energy back. It’s important to also stay hydrated but that’s a given. You definitely feel more sluggish if you eat too much junk food.

I struggle a lot with motivation, and I am aware I could hit a low at any point, so on a day to day basis, I try to stay off of social media as much as possible, especially right now. I keep a regular hygiene routine and I try to go for a few walks a week, even if it’s just to a shop that’s a little farther than normal. When I really don’t want to exercise I’ll just do some stretches instead or some yoga. It’s really good to have an outlet to help you destress. For me it’s art, video games and I’m saving up for a good punching bag because sometimes you do just need to let it all out. I also try to keep a good sleep schedule but I find that extremely hard. I went through every bit of advice on how to combat insomnia and really I found that for me I need to keep a calm show or music or rain sounds on while I try and go to sleep, I actually can’t go to sleep at night unless I have something running quietly and it also provides just a little bit of light so I’m not completely in the dark.

In the end when you are battling a mental illness, it’s a long road. There is no immediate cure, there’s a lot of trial and error to figure out what works for you, but the simple little things do seem to make big differences. I am fortunate to have people to help me and to rely on when I have those times I’m stuck in bed for days on end (which is completely normal – you’re not “just being lazy”). With all this extra stuff going on in your head constantly you are bound to get run down. It is hard to take advice on board but the best I can say is really give it a go and don’t put yourself down if it doesn’t work out. You can be your own worst enemy so it’s important to work with yourself not against. 

Any time I go through a difficult time in my life, I keep in mind that there is a lesson to be learned. There is a lesson to be learned in almost every circumstance, but definitely the most important ones come from hardships. I would always tell myself everything happens for a reason, and I would really believe it, even if it seemed so awful at the time.

Never be afraid to ask for help and actually allow people to help. Reach out to people you trust. Even reaching out in general may bring unexpected positives. Any time someone helps me I make sure to return the favour and be there for them when they need it so I don’t feel guilty or anxious that I’m being a bad friend, daughter, girlfriend etc. I find that I feel better when I can properly help someone, even if it is just lending an ear or making them a cup of tea when they don’t want to leave bed.

When COVID 19 first came around it was really tough, I was just getting used to socialising properly and it was really helping, not to mention how scary it is in general. I had been having appointments with Oasis for a few months by then, and I can really say I benefitted from them, even if it was just to get me out of the house. I’ve been trying to be more patient with everyone around me because I am so aware of how everyone’s tensions are up. My parents were both high risk so I was doing all the shopping alone when it first started and the strict rules meant it took everything not to have a panic attack in the shops at first. I would get quite worked up and light headed. I follow all of the guidelines regardless because it does not sit well with me that I could be the cause of someone catching it. I have been into town once and it was very anxiety inducing. I have barely seen friends, but I try to keep in touch as much as possible. Finding our own peace and happiness is vital right now, it is a really great opportunity to really work on yourself. I have been doing my art and cooking so much more. I have done so much cleaning and organising and clearing out. Having a more organised space has really helped now that we’re spending so much time indoors.

All I can really say is stop doubting yourself, stop putting yourself down and start fresh. These are really good points to help get into the right mindset. Really believe in yourself and understand that there are always options and alternatives. You are not weak or weird for relying on them, and most of all, you are not a failure. You were made to be you and there’s no point trying to fight it. Learn to love yourself and respect the time you have on earth. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this before! 

Stay safe!