Never underestimate the power of panic. Anyone that has suffered a panic attack will know that they are both terrifying and debilitating. Mix that with the embarrassment of being in front of other people and you have a destructive concoction that creates the dreaded panic attack.
Panic is part of anxiety, which is your body’s way of coping with fear. As soon as we suspect a threat a number of physical symptoms whir into motion. The first thing we get is a shot of adrenalin that prepares our body to fight or flight. Our pupils dilate to take in more information to assess the immediate, such as ‘where is the exit!’ We shake, our palms sweat and we might want to go to the toilet (I always do!), which is the body’s way of lightening itself in case it needs to run and take ‘flight’. Our breathing rate changes and our hearts pump blood around the body making it feel as though it’s impossible to breath.
It is bloody horrible and the only way to beat panic is to go through it again and again. It does get easier but boy it’s a journey!
One of my first panic attacks was seven years ago and began whilst I was deep in depression, begging for help. Fear crept inside my body as my thoughts sped ahead of what might happen to me. I was known to the crisis team as having a diagnosis of bipolar and it got to the point where I had to call them. As I cried I started gasping for breath and at that point I couldn’t speak and my thoughts of collapsing and dying flooded my head. I hyperventilated, which is when you exhale more than you inhale which causes a rapid reduction of carbon monoxide in the body.
Another example is two years ago when I drove back from my friend’s house I’d laughed and chatted and felt no stress, however, my leg started to jolt and my heart began to race. All of a sudden I realised I couldn’t pull over and I would have to keep driving. All the symptoms of anxiety hit me hard but I had no idea what was going on. I managed the journey home but fell through the door and collapsed onto the floor. My arms and legs jolted and an ambulance was called. I had a number of tests and in between kept running to the toilet to relieve myself. A doctor came to see me and asked me whether I was stressed or worried about anything? They explained that anxiety in the body can do strange things at times and for some reason I was getting adrenalin shots one after the other. I cried on hearing his explanation as the word ‘anxiety’ seemed petty to describe such an extreme reaction. It was that day I realised our bodies can be under stress without even realising it and physical reactions can at times, be inexplicable.
So what can we do?
Every nurse or doctor that has helped me in a panic situation has started with nothing other than controlling my breathing. It is the first thing to do at crisis point. We can’t explain our triggers at the crux and just need calm, reassurance and understanding. Further panic from another person merely exacerbates the symptoms. When someone makes eye contact with me, asks whether I want to sit or move away from the current situation and breaths with me slowly and deeply I start to move through the panic to calm down.
Breathing is not just about in and out. Diaphragmatic breathing is a technique that when practised is highly effective. It is breathing in through the nose slowly, right from the tummy not the chest and out through the mouth even more slowly. There is a great Youtube video listed below that shows you in more detail. I have learnt to do this when I feel anxious and this includes doing so discreetly whilst standing in front of one hundred and fifty students, ready to guest speak. It is physically proven to calm the body down.
It may sound strange but it is possible to cope with panic attacks. The key is recognising the signs early and reacting in a way that is right for you. Do you need space? Do you need to call someone? Ultimately though, it is facing the fear head on. Whatever your body does to you, anxiety doesn’t kill. I tell myself it will be over soon and it is simply a physical reaction that is nothing to be scared of. In fact, it is a reaction that your body does to help you so embrace it and if you can, use the adrenalin to push through a presentation or run a race or anything you need to do. You will be ok.
Just remember. Don’t be scared of panic as we all feel stressed and anxious at some point. In fact, fearlessly welcome the fear! There is so much help out there to cope and you can really help yourself with learning breathing techniques. Good luck!
Downloadable anxiety and panic attacks pdf from charity MIND
For any serious mental health issues first port of call is speaking to your GP and don’t be afraid to ask for talking therapy. For more information use the following websites – there is lots of support out there I promise!
http://www.youngminds.org.uk/ – For young people with parent helpline.
The Samaritans are a non-judgemental ear where you can talk confidentially about anything
Here is a fantastic carers package if you are supporting someone with mental health problems: