“I think I am having a panic attack! How can I stop it?”
Both my teenagers have asked me this question at some point during their young lives. Panic occurs as a natural result of anxiety. Yet anxiety is a term so readily bandied around nowadays that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between that which is genuinely life changing and that which is a fleeting response to a stressful situation.
We all have moments in our lives which we find stressful but anxiety at its most serious is debilitating and can drastically affect the sufferer’s day to day life and that of those around them.
In the case of my teens both were experiencing moments of heightened anxiety as a result of exams, a normal scenario for many. However, as a sufferer of panic attacks myself some years ago I am all too conscious of the need not to dismiss another’s anxiety out of turn and find myself naturally sympathetic to those coming out as a fellow victim.
My own experience was unprecedented. There was no logical reason for it and that is often the most frustrating aspect. It doesn’t make sense. But then again it is not meant to. I consider myself to be a relatively resilient person but found myself knocked sideaways for a good 6 months by recurrent panic attacks.
Surviving or Thriving, the report released earlier this year by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that over a quarter of people in the UK say that they have experienced panic attacks at some point during their lives. That is not an insignificant number and justifies the need for an emphasis on treating and caring for our nation’s mental health.
The challenge with anxiety lies in recognising when you have a problem that could benefit from expert help.
- The Symptoms
So starting with the basics, what is a panic attack and what does it feel like?
If you talk to anyone that has had a panic attack one of the first things they would say in describing one is that they thought they were having a heart attack or rather what they imagined a heart attack to feel like anyway.
A racing heart is a classic physical symptom of a panic attack, along with an inability to breathe which can lead to a period of hyperventilating, sweating, severe nausea and trembling.
The triggers, however, are less easy to identify and that is what can make treating them seem like an uphill struggle. Whilst the fact you are experiencing panic attacks is due to a period of stress past or present and your body’s physical reaction to it, the specific episodes themselves are not linked by a common situation.
My first attack occurred in a shopping centre discussing bed linen with a shop assistant. My second walking to collect my children from school. My third in a queue in the post office. One of my worst was in Athens on top of the Acropolis, marring what was an idyllic moment during a family holiday.
None of these situations were stressful and that is the difference between an isolated attack induced by a specifically stressful scenario like sitting an exam, standing up in front of hundreds to give a speech or fighting off an attacker and an actual disorder.
I had experienced some stressful situations in my life a divorce, a parent with cancer but at the time of the attacks themselves my only stress was the everyday kind, but it is possible after periods of intense stress for something small to trigger a physical reaction that can then spiral out of control if ignored.
Treating panic attacks requires the sufferer to recognise the onset of an attack and know how to control it. That is easier said than done of course. The feeling is overwhelming and the memory of how it renders you helpless so terrifying it can be a self-perpetuating problem as you become taken over by it. The fear of having another attack also comes with its own problems including a reluctance to go out or put yourself in a social situation where you may not be able to control an attack.
I am not an expert. I only have my own experience and treatment to draw upon but that has been enough for me to encourage others not to dismiss panic attacks as a “passing phase”. This is particularly easy when dealing with young people as teenagers are notorious for behaviour which can easily be dismissed as “just a phase they are going through”.
I have been reminded of the agony of panic attacks recently by the stories of two young teenagers known by our family and both the same age as my daughter, just 14. The first is the daughter of a very dear friend and the second a school friend of my daughter’s.
There was a time when I was reluctant to discuss my own experience, preferring to push it to the back of my mind as an unfortunate episode, but of course as with everything there shouldn’t be a stigma associated with panic attacks and sometimes personal recommendations can make a difference in helping others to make sense of what is happening to them or someone they know and if that someone is a young person then that is a job well done.
- Treatment & Recovery
CBT played a big role in my recovery. As someone who had always historically shunned therapy I surprised myself with how quickly I embraced it in this instance. It helped me to make sense of what was happening which I couldn’t do on my own. Once I grasped that I could train my mind to take back control of my body I became less anxious about the attacks and more willing to explore contolling mechanisms that worked for me. Ultimately the objective was to remove the fear and get my mind to a point where it would forget what panic attacks were.
Nutrition was also important. My body was being swamped by adrenaline during these attacks and I was encouraged to remove any other stimulants to my nervous system. Caffeine and sugar were the obvious ones.
Exercise and an emphasis on controlling my breathing were addressed with regular Pilates sessions.
Aside from these lifestyle changes, I also had what I fondly refer to as my panic attack first aid kit which comprised a few things that gave me the confidence to continue as normal, safe in the knowledge that if something did happen in public I could manage it. A bottle of water to splash on my face, a brown paper bag to manage my breathing and a barley sugar to remove the nausea became permanent accessories in my handbag for when the attacks came knocking.
Collectively all this helped get me to a point where the attacks not only no longer scared me, but became shorter in length as a I learnt how to manage them and then eventually they occurred less frequently, until such a time as I wasn’t experiencing them at all anymore. There is no real danger to someone from a panic attack other than the one that their mind may create and that is why it is one of the most treatable anxiety issues and where the phrase mind over matter has never been more pertinent. My key piece of advice for what it is worth, is don’t dismiss panic attacks as a phase, seek help early and take control before they control you.