DON’T PANIC! (It’s just an attack!)

‘It’s true I had a lot of anxiety. I was afraid of the dark and suspicious of the light.’ ~ Woody Allen

You know the signs. Palpitations, gasping for air, sweaty palms, complete with the sudden feeling of impending doom – and nope, you’ve not been caught in the act by shocked and appalled parents. You’re about to have, or are in the midst of having, a panic attack. The world as you know it has ended. You’re not sure what is about to happen, but you are certain that it is the very worst thing that ever could.

Popping my panic cherry

My first panic attack seemingly came from nowhere. One minute I was lounging on the couch, watching television, the next I was racing around the room, eyes wide open, heart pounding, hyperventilating and convinced I was going to drop dead or the world was going to explode. The episode lasted for two hours, until I was too tired to carry on. The next night, around the same time, I felt lightheaded, started gulping air and went off on one again.

Knowledge is a cold shower

I typed my symptoms into Google and came across a lot of sites relating to anxiety. This was news to me, I had always been pretty confident and level-headed. I was a strong, assertive and intelligent girl damn it! So what was the deal with the panic attacks?

After a week of almost daily attacks I took myself off to the family doctor. He prescribed beta blockers to control the physical aspects of the ”episodes”, helping me to break the daily cycle. I felt reassured just by having the medication in my pocket, the knowledge that I could put a stop to the attack before it started. It didn’t quite work like that though, the attacks came on strong and unexpectedly and by the time I was in the middle of one, I couldn’t take my finger off my pulse long enough to take the medication. Back to the docs. This time he said a very simple but profound statement to me,

”Think about what’s going on in your life. Happy people don’t have panic attacks.”

Woooah. I wasn’t happy? Okaaay. What was the problem then? Well, in hindsight, I can tell you that losing people close to me and dealing with it by going out and getting drunk and not looking after myself were definete contributing factors. At the time though, I was grieving, generally hungover and wired on sugar so I wasn’t in the best state to ponder on my mental health.

It was a long time before I got to the stage where I could talk about what was going on. When I did…..oh god, what a ****ing relief! I started to address the problem in different ways and I’m going to share them with you, hopefully it’ll take you less time (and misspent energy) to get to the place I’m at now.

If I could talk I’d tell you…

Every year, more people are being diagnosed as having an anxiety disorder and/or depression. There is a high probability that someone you know has also experienced them (and has also kept quiet because of embarrassment or fear). By speaking up, you are opening yourself up to help – this is not a failing, it’s the biggest step you’ll take in overcoming your anxiety.

We tend to be our own worst enemy when it comes to keeping things to ourselves. I could bring on a panic attack by worrying that I might have one in front of my friends and be forever known as the wierdo woman-mental. So we made a joke about it. I told my closest friends what made me feel better during an attack and they promised not to threaten me with straight jackets. I found that the more I talked about it in a lighthearted way, the less significant and threatening it became. Aswell as bringing relief, talking about it strengthened my friendships, I realised that the gobby sarcasm was also a mask for my vunerability. Letting my guard down (or having it totally blown off it’s hinges by an impromptu panic attack) allowed people to get closer to me. Not a bad thing as it turns out.

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour…

How about what not to do? For a while I decided the best thing to do would be to drink. It was a logical step. I would start feeling anxious around 6pm, then focus on the feeling until I went into one by about 7. I could have set an alarm for the time I would have an attack (instead of beeping, it would be the sound of me hyperventilating. That would stop you hitting the snooze button, eh?). Sooooo, instead of doing that, I went to the pub. The second drink normally got me out of the danger zone. After that I was relaxed enough to get nicely tipsy and not have to worry about panic attacks.

Unfortunately, low blood sugar levels and dehydration can also get the body all shook up. So, instead of having them in the evening, I started the day off with them instead. Lovely. I found a way around it though, with the old ‘prevention is better than cure’ remedy…..drink cola. Yep, this was short lived also.

Goodbye Sugar Girl

Well, I can’t say I immediately gave up sugar without a second thought…this one’s taken years, but these days I have it as a treat. I recently had a month without sugar-no honey, no spoons in tea/coffee, no dried fruit or concentrated fruit juice, just naturally occurring sugars in whole fruits and vegetables-and I noticed the difference within the first week. I had more energy, I wasn’t feeling anxious mid-afternoon because of hunger and as a bonus, I lost the extra weight I put on when I was satisfying daily cravings. By making more conscious eating choices and planning ahead, I’ve put a stop to sugar crashes that can imitate panic attacks. You don’t need a special eating plan, just know the basics and fit them into your daily routine. Eating every couple of hours will keep your sugar levels steady and everything in balance. For an idea of when and how often, it roughly works out as breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner. Make sure you have good sources of protein at the same time as complex carbohydrates and have a look at low GL recipes for examples of balanced meals.

Where is my mind?

So we know what we can do to empower ourselves, but what about external life events that are beyond our control? Our upbringing, bereavement, abandonment, life transitions such as becoming a parent, moving home, being promoted…all contribute to our ability to deal with stress and can quickly overwhelm us. Talking to a trained counselor or a professional who specialises in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy could be the answer. Our mindset is influenced from the start by genetics and our family environment, it’s then enhanced by the people we surround ourselves with. Our self-belief, thought patterns and values are so deeply ingrained it can take years for us to see that they might not be serving us too well in our adult years. Speaking to someone who can be objective helps to put your feelings into context. Analysing your behaviour patterns helps you to approach similar problems with a different outlook and achieve a different (in this case, a positive) outcome.

Witness the fitness

The old faithful….exercise! Yeah I know, I struggle with this, I tend to go in cycles of all or nothing-something for another blog post. Exercise helps to manage anxiety by releasing the excess adrenalin that we store up as we prepare to fight our dragons. It also builds up our self-esteem, encouraging a more positive belief system, helping us to manage our stress better and improve our cardiovascular system, as well as helping us to control our breathing-a helpful skill to have when we are dealing with hyperventilating. Exercise doesn’t have to be all sweaty and competitive, yoga is great for calming the mind, controlling breathing and helping us to block outside triggers and negative anticipation, by concentrating our minds on the present.

Above all, don’t aid and abet panic attacks by keeping quiet, they are isolating enough!

Please feel free to use the comment space as a forum, adding your personal experiences and ways of dealing with panic attacks.

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4 Responses to “DON’T PANIC! (It’s just an attack!)”

  1. mspennylane Says:

    I just came across your post whilst browsing tags, but it caught my eye. I have never had a panic attack but I have anxiety. Weirdly, reading your article about anxiety makes me feel a bit anxious, as does caffeine, sometimes loud beats in music as they make me feel like my heart is beating fast, but these are all side effects of a social anxiety due to a fear of blushing which I wrote about here: http://marmaladeskiesblog.wordpress.com/2008/05/25/erythrophobia/

    I just liked the way your post was written, simple to read and very positive about the whole situation. They are so simple but good tips for everyone. I also used alcohol to help, but now I try not too as I don’t want to depend on it.

    “Above all, don’t aid and abet panic attacks by keeping quiet, they are isolating enough!” – this is so true and one of the most difficult things (although in my case the social anxiety rather than specific attacks). I don’t know about you, but I think sometimes I get very quiet, want to avoid people and that comes across rude rather than people realizing the real reason. But I can’t seem to bring myself to tell them.

    Anyway, posts like yours are helpful for people like me who don’t know that much yet about their own situation, and will help others to understand.

  2. Lisa Says:

    Hi Mspennylane,
    Thank you for your comment, I’m sorry to hear the post triggered anxious feelings, that wasn’t my intention! Although it’s not wierd that it does as it is addressing the very feeling you are concerned about, that is the first action in dealing with it.
    I think people who know me would consider me to be a confident person and when I was having attacks they could sometimes go unnoticed by other people. I learned that I was a lot more aware of myself than other people were and was giving myself a hard time without people even realising there was a problem!
    Confiding in someone I was with at a social event made me feel more relaxed, keeping my insecurities under control and better still, listening to them and focusing on others rather than myself kept me actively engaged in my environment.
    Good luck with your journey, you will find the methods that suit you best and will feel a lot stronger for having conquered this!

  3. Great Blogs « Marmalade Skies Says:

    […] DON’T PANIC! (It’s just an attack!) – I came across this a while ago. It is just a down-to-earth post about a normal person suffering from panic attacks. It’s great to be upfront about these things. […]

  4. Crispy Says:

    Hi Lisa. Great post. I met someone years ago who suggested that I might suffer from anxiety. (I had just thought all along that I was a driven individual. Pooh! The excuses we make up for ourselves).

    Even though I have gotten past most of my anxiety issues, I still notice from time to time that when I am sitting quietly and happily, my pulse suddenly races, my blood pressure rises, and I get that all-too-familiar feeling in my chest. Yup, an attack – for no reason at all.

    Having lived with anxiety for so long, I think my body has not yet unlearned the physical responses; and feels the need to kick into an attack now and again. Or maybe it’s a constant reminder that I still need to be aware of “the beast” and to not let it get the best of me ever again.

    Good luck and keep us updated.
    -Crispy

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