According to statistics from No More Panic, there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK in 2013. Mixed anxiety and depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in Britain with 7.8 percent of the population meeting the criteria for diagnosis.
Mental health charity Mind states that nearly 6 in 100 of us are suffering from generalised anxiety and 0.6 in 100 have a panic disorder.
And women are more likely to suffer from anxiety and panic than men. That’s a lot of people, living in a cycle of fear and probably waiting for the next panic attack.
What is a Panic Attack?
Whether you suffer from a panic disorder or generalised anxiety, the most common thread is a panic attack.
One minute you’re feeling fine, the next you’re in the grips of a panic attack. The symptoms come on quickly and can peak in just a few minutes.
Sufferers often have very real physical symptoms including:
- Shortness of breath
- Churning stomach
- Rapid heartbeat
- A feeling of dread or fear of dying
Anxious thoughts can take hold of you at the most unexpected moments.
A few months ago, I did a quick run to the shops for a few provisions with my sister. I miss-stepped slightly getting out of the car and my mind mistook the off-balance feeling as me being light-headed and evidence that I might pass out.
By the time we walked into the shop, I hit panic mode. Not that my sister would have noticed, only perhaps that I was unusually quiet. My mind was full of chatter, piling up every scrap of evidence that I was about to pass out and leave my sister stranded.
I rushed around the shop and got back to the sanctuary of the car by which time my hands were shaking as I gripped onto the steering wheel.
As soon as I got through the door to the safety of my home, I sat down for a moment of calm before my mind took me elsewhere.
What Does Panic Feel Like?
I developed my panic disorder when I was eight years old. It occurred out of the blue while on holiday with my granddad and my sister. It was typical summer’s day filled with ice cream and sunshine. I didn’t feel anxious or worried about anything.
The memory that preceded my first panic attack had been a happy one. We’d gone to pick up my granddad’s partner, who was arriving back from the Netherlands.
We had been treated to a slice of cake as we waited for the boat to dock. When she got off the boat, she warmly greeted my sister and I, and then presented us each with a packet of delicious Stroopwafels.
As we made our way back home, I wound down the window a little to ease the thick feeling in the car due to the heat.
As the refreshing breeze hit my face, my heart began to race. I tried to swallow, but my throat was closing up and I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs.
I’m going to die
I felt nauseated, lightheaded and unable to speak.
It was one of the most terrifying things I had ever experienced. I don’t know when it ended or what stopped it.
At the time, I didn’t understand what had happened. For the rest of my holiday I was absorbed by the belief that any minute, without any warning, my body would stop working and I wouldn’t be here anymore.
Part of My Life
For the years that followed, panic attacks plagued my life. It wasn’t until I was 18 years old, following various EEG’s, ECG’s, blood tests and so forth, that doctors diagnosed me as suffering with a panic disorder.
My panic disorder is now firmly a part of my life.
Sometimes the symptoms are oddly yet reassuringly familiar; heart pounding, palpitations, pain down my arms, nausea, dizziness, vertigo.
Other times the symptoms change or morph into something new, such as numbness in my legs, tingling down my arms or in my face. The moment I start to understand and acknowledge one set of panic symptoms, a host of new ones come my way.
Out of the Blue Panic Attacks
The panic attack I had while shopping was a fairly mild but it goes to show that panic and anxiety can strike at any time and turn a normal activity into one that’s drenched in fear.
Last year my anxiety and panic disorder peaked, partially due to mental and physical health issues but anything bad that happened left me worried that I was about to leave the boys motherless.
Going for a walk, driving the car, lying in bed, watching TV – none of these ‘normal’ and perhaps even relaxing experiences posed a threat to my wellbeing. Yet I can experience most panic attacks during these times completely out of the blue without any apparent ‘fear’ stimulus.
Research into Panic Attacks
Panic attacks generally occur when they are expected, for example if triggered by being in closed spaces or in large crowds.
To sufferers and experts alike, the reason for out of the blue panic attacks remains a mystery.
Psychologist Alicia E. Meuret at Southern Methodist University in Dallas presented a study based on 24-hour monitoring of panic attack sufferers while they went about their daily activities. They captured panic attacks as they happened, monitoring their heart rate, respiration and other bodily functions.
“The results were just amazing,” Meuret said. “We found that in this hour preceding naturally occurring panic attacks, there was a lot of physiological instability. These significant physiological instabilities were not present during other times when the patient wasn’t about to have a panic attack.”
The patients reported the attacks as unexpected, lacking awareness of a lingering attack or changing physiology.
“The changes don’t seem to enter the patient’s awareness,” Meuret said. “What they report is what happens at the end of the 60 minutes — that they’re having an out-of-the blue panic attack with a lot of intense physical sensations. We had expected the majority of the physiological activation would occur during and following the onset of the panic attack. But what we actually found was very little additional physiological change at that time.”
David M. Allen M.D. said “My theory is that people who are genetically prone to them will start to have them when they are chronically anxious. Whenever they are on guard, on edge, walking on eggshells, or disturbed about something, they then can have a panic at any time during the whole period they feel that way. Why they happen at any particular time remains a mystery.”
How I Control Panic and Anxiety
While panic and anxiety will never completely disappear, I am determined for fear not to rule my life.
It’s not always easy and some days are bigger battles than others. If stress comes my way, I manage it but it’s later on that a delayed panic attack strikes.
There are some techniques and practises I adopted to help manage my disorder so that it doesn’t hold me back. I could easily become agoraphobic as large crowds trigger my panic and I’m worried that while out on a walk on my own, I will faint and not be found.
Having said that, I’ve found that even if I feel anxious or terrified of going out, jumping into the thing I’m fearful of often helps anxiety dissipate quicker than if I’d stayed indoors.
In fact, when I’ve been in work or concentrating on a project, my panic tends to stay away. Luckily, there’s never been a time when I’ve had a panic attack in the work place or while doing my freelancing. I’m pretty sure it’s down to being distracted and focused on something else.
But in the mundane, everyday life, there are a few techniques I use to quiet my anxious mind.
Acknowledge Thoughts and Let Them Pass
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helped me visualise my thoughts by seeing them as passing trains. She said that I didn’t have to get on every train that passed through the station, but could acknowledge it was there and then let it go.
Shunryu Suzuki said: “In (meditation) leave your front door open and back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
Write Down Your Feelings
I’ve talked about the health benefits of keeping a journal and this is hugely helpful when in the middle of a panic attack. The act of writing neutralises the anxious thoughts and with it, my physiological symptoms ease.
One thing I learnt in CBT is that meditation can physically change your brain and enables you to put some distance between you and the panic attack.
For a screaming and noisy mind, meditation allows you to become still and centred. It decreases your heart rate, lowers respiratory rate and increases blood flow into the brain.
There are different types of meditation and the one I use structured meditation where I focus on an object, breathe slowly and if my mind wanders, I focus my attention back on the object. Other times I concentrate on the object and engage with my senses by thinking about how that object, such as a cup of coffee, tastes, smells or feels.
Talk About It
I start talking if I feel like it will help my anxiety. Like writing, talking neutralises the threat in my mind and brings me back round again. I do this with someone I completely trust and who will not add fuel to my fears. For example, if I’m feeling lightheaded, I would tell my husband and he’d ask ‘what’s worrying you?’
Another person may want to run me to A&E which would escalate my panic further.
I advocate CBT too, as this can retrain your brain to think and see things differently and it taught me some invaluable techniques to manage my panic disorder.
Power Through The Fear
This might not work for everyone, so only try this exercise if you feel comfortable. My panic disorder is intense it could take over my life and be debilitating if I let it so I’ve had to engage in this technique fairly frequently.
Slowly ease yourself into doing the thing that sets off your panic attack. For example, if you’re afraid of going for a walk on your own, start by walking to the end of your road or whatever distance feels achievable. If you turn back that’s fine. The point is that you are facing your fear and teaching your brain to see that situation differently.
Eventually, and it may take some time, your brain will no longer see it that thing as a threat.
Self Care Routine
Self care is the most important things you can do when managing your panic and anxiety.
I know that when I haven’t taken time out to look after myself then my mental health issue will rear its ugly head. Self care can be anything that makes you feel relaxed, happy and is for you. It’s crucial to allow time to recharge and refill the cup. Whether it’s going for a walk on your own, attending yoga once a week or treating yourself to a nice long bath – make it part of your routine so that it doesn’t become neglected by you or your family.
I often have panic attacks when I’m out and about. I found that by anchoring myself to the moment can ease my symptoms significantly. Your mind will be telling you to flee and seek safety, but the best thing you can do is stay where you are and embrace the present moment.
For example, if I am near a tree, I focus on the feel of its bark or the smoothness of a leaf in my hand.
Linda Esposito said in Psychology Today: “Grounding strategies include feeling your feet on the ground, or your hands on the steering wheel, or bracing yourself against a wall. Of course, leaving is always an option, but try to stay in the situation until your rational mind returns.”
If you are ever unsure what is causing your panic attacks or suspect there may be a physical cause then seek medical advice.
Panic attacks are scary and draining, and while it feels like they have a hold over your life, they don’t have to hold you hostage. Speak to a therapist who can help you deal with your attacks and triggers.
How do you manage your panic attacks?