Panic attacks – “A broken brain is not a broken being”

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Jenna Smith, 28, holds up a keychain given to her grandparents as a girl. When she feels anxious she distracts herself by focusing on the glitter and bubbles in the wand. Jan. 19. Millicent McKay photo.

By Millicent McKay

Jan. 20, 2016

Sitting around the kitchen table, Jenna Smith turns to her mother.

“When did I start experiencing my anxiety?”

“In the womb. I could feel it,” her mother said.

At three and a half, Smith started experiencing panic attacks after suffering from an asthma attack. Soon after she developed separation anxiety from her mother.

“I always felt if something went wrong, mom would be there to save me.”

When you’re young you don’t understand your mind is doing this to you, so you always think there is something wrong with you, she said.

After that, it became a snowball effect.

It manifested as other anxieties and mental illnesses like social anxiety, panic disorder, OCD and situational depression.

For Smith, movie theatres would set off an attack.

“I was 13 or 14 in a theatre, watching the South Park movie, and I was starting to take an attack. There were the typical signs. My heart was racing, my hands were sweating, I had a hard time breathing and swallowing, but then I started losing feeling in my face.

“I thought this is new, there’s something wrong, I need to leave, I need to get to the hospital, I’m going to die,”

She ran out of the theatre and hit the cold air. The attack went away.

“I remember thinking ‘dammit now I’m just going to miss the rest of the movie’.”

In junior high, Smith tried various medications, but isn’t sure if it helped.

“It took away the highs and the lows. Everything is just OK. Nothing is really great, but nothing is really horrible either. I felt like a zombie. I didn’t really enjoy anything.”

She decided to face it on her own to see if it would make things better.

“It’s nice, I can enjoy things more. But when things are bad, they’re really bad. But then I remember that things can be really good too.”

Ardath Whynacht wants people to know what mental illness is.

The sociology professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. has a background in psychiatric knowledge and the sociology of health.

“Let’s define what we call mental illness because I think there is a lot of misconception and public confusion about what mental illness is.”

Current scientific evidence suggests that most mental illnesses are what we call bio-psycho-social. It’s an important set of words hyphenated together because mental illness comes from biological factors, psychological factors and social factors, she said.

“I don’t like to define what mental health is, I think that project creates a normative understanding of what it means to be a correct human.”

In other words, if you don’t think or feel a certain way, you aren’t normal.

“As a sociologist, we look at how these normative ideas of what a human should be or how a human should think or should feel and that causes a lot of oppression and suffering in itself.”

Whynacht leans towards the neurodiversity movement, a movement that allows those on the autism spectrum to be incorporated into daily life.

“You’re still a human being and this is your experience, and if you want treatment because these symptoms are painful for you, it’s coming from you and not from this blotter idea that you have to be neuro-typical and have a particular experience.”

The biggest misconception is people struggling with mental illnesses are dangerous, Whynacht said.

“I think the most frightening thing for the public is to accept that someone just like them could kill someone.

“I think that’s what we’re really afraid of. We’re afraid of seeing ourselves in the thing that we fear… even though statistically speaking we are more likely to be hurt driving in a car, crossing the road. It’s a non-starter.”

Meanwhile, sitting around the kitchen table, Smith urges people to talk about what they are facing.

“Don’t keep it to yourself, that’s the worst thing, because it will just eat you up. Chances are you are going to meet a lot of people who are going through the same thing and might be too afraid to talk.

“Maybe you say something and they’ll say something, and you might end up helping each other.”