My career is where it is today because of the panic attacks I suffered. At my lowest I probably had 20 a day. Only people that have had to cope with them will realise the severity of them. They knocked me and my confidence sideways and I actually believed I would never feel normal again.
Panic attacks can be a terrifying experience:
Nicole Kidman admitted to suffering panic attacks in red carpet situations. “I panic in front of cameras, my hands start shaking and I have trouble breathing.” (2002 interview with Vogue Magazine).
Kim Basinger has always been open about her panic attacks, sharing her experiences in dozens of interviews. Her first episode actually scared her into being housebound for several months; she eventually forced herself to get out through sheer determination. She sought therapy after continuing to experience panic attacks.
Paula Dean was a prisoner in her own home due to struggles with agoraphobia and panic attacks. Her condition arose in her twenties, shortly after the death of her parents and birth of her two sons. She has since overcome her anxieties to flourish in her current role as one of America’s best-known cooking celebrities.
Panic disorder is different from other anxiety disorders in the way it reacts to stressful events. Symptoms of panic disorder include sudden attacks of fear and nervousness as well as physical symptoms such as sweating and a racing heart. During a panic attack the fear response is out of proportion to the situation, which in itself is often not threatening. Over time a person suffering with panic attacks can develop a fear of having another panic attack, which can affect daily functioning and quality of life.
Pounding heart or chest pain.
Intense feeling of terror.
Sensation of chocking.
Dizziness or feeling faint.
Trembling or shaking.
Nausea or stomach aches.
Tingling or numbness in fingers or toes.
Chills or hot flushes.
A fear of losing control or feeling you’re about to die.
One in five of us will have an unexpected panic attack during times of stress. A lot of panic attack sufferers also become agoraphobic. If you suffer both, as a counsellor I would work with you to challenge and face the situations you’ve been avoiding. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it can be done.
The key to battling this is to take life in bite sized chunks. During the first week, venture out into the garden or find a quiet, relaxing place to do some mindfulness exercises. In week two, venture a little further afield, such as a local park, and repeat the exercises. As well as taking steps to leave the house, don’t forget to do your exercises at home as well to de-stress your body when/if it becomes anxious.
I’d recommend keeping a panic attack diary. Write down what your worst fear was during the panic attack, when it happened and where it happened. How did you feel after it took place? All of these questions will help you to understand triggers.
I would also suggest carrying a small paper bag with you if you’re prone to panic attacks. When an attack looms, cover your mouth with it and breathe in and out, focusing on the bag inflating and deflating slowly. This activity will regulate your breathing and help you concentrate on your breath instead of the feelings of panic.
Panic disorder has been shown to run in families, however, it isn’t clear to what extent. The nature vs. nurture debate is one that shows prevalence in this situation. Is it something genetically passed on, or is it as a result of upbringing?
Another trigger is a stressful event and life transition, such as the death of a loved one.
The fear of the feeling of panic attacks can be so frightening that they cause you to panic more. It’s important to remember they are temporary and harmless. Try to challenge yourself in these situations; keep in your mind that you’re not going to die, and try to stay focused on the reality that you will come out of this experience feeling fine at the end.
As a former panic attack victim, I know how hard it is to take stock of this information whilst you’re having one. I also understand that on a bad day they can come on fast and furious which can lead to you feeling exhausted. Coping with a panic attack is a huge achievement, so remember to pat yourself on the back once it is over.