By Louise. Posted on 16th May 2014.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. This is a subject and cause that is close to my heart. And in particular, the theme of this year’s week, anxiety. It’s so important to be aware of how anxiety can affect you, or your friends and family. It’s even more important not to be ashamed of feeling anxious, particularly extreme anxiety, like panic attacks. I know first-hand how hard it is to deal with panic and in the name of breaking the taboo and not being ashamed, I am posting a little of my experiences during MHA Week 2014. I hope you find this either interesting or helpful – I know that what helped me was hearing of others going through the same thing and how they overcame it. So if you know someone who this post might help, please do forward it on to them!
Panic affected me before I knew it did. When I worked in London about six years ago, I used to have moments where I was frozen to my desk and really thought that if I got up I would faint. At the time I thought I was just exhausted from commuting. I now realise this was most likely panic.
My first real panic attack was in 2011. Completely out of the blue, in a lecture theatre at a work talk. I was completely fine until the lecture started and then I felt this overwhelming feeling of anxiety like a wall hitting me. I felt shaky, hot, my palms were sweating. I felt dizzy and then my eyes started to glaze over and everything went blurry. I HAD to get out. I told my friend I felt ill and then moved as fast as I could out of that place. As soon as I was out of the theatre, I felt relief. I felt normal again, could breathe properly. I sat on a bench in the foyer and waited for the talk to end. I felt stupid now. But I was also wondering what WAS that? I must have not eaten enough and was light-headed, I told myself.
I tried to move on from that episode but panic wasn’t done with me yet. For the next few months panic would strike all over the place. In meetings, in cafés at lunch with friends, on trains, in theatres, at weddings. It was truly and utterly horrible. I became fearful of going out, petrified of getting on a train, and avoided the Tube completely when in London. I was constantly planning my day to avoid situations I knew would trigger panic. I dreaded meetings and would always try to sit near to the door in case I needed to run out. I would be planning my escape route in my head instead of listening to the meeting or talk. I didn’t know how on earth to get over this, or even where to start.
I self-referred to Talking Space in Oxford and was put on the waiting list for CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). In the meantime, I bought two books that I would definitely recommend to anyone experiencing panic: ‘Understanding Panic Attacks’ by Dr Roger Baker and ‘Panic Attacks’ by Christine Ingham. One by a doctor and one by a sufferer. Both were reassuring. It really helps to properly understand what is going on in your body during a panic attack. You fear it less if you know what’s going on. For example why your hands and feet have gone numb or tingly (because all the blood is rushing to your thumping heart!).
Another thing that without a doubt helped me during this bad patch was talking to family and friends. Admitting what I was dealing with meant that I was less scared and didn’t try to cover it up all the time. I even discovered that a good friend of mine was going through the same thing at the same time – she became my rock of support and I hope I was for her too. It felt so good to have someone just know exactly what you were talking about.
After about a month or two on the waiting list, I was able to see a therapist for one-to-one CBT and I also attended a group course on anxiety run by Oxfordshire Mind. Slowly, the panic became less. It was still there, still lurking, but it didn’t affect me all day every day.
After CBT, I discovered mindfulness. I think CBT works to a point but I have to admit that it hasn’t become my everyday life and it was hard to form the new habits. CBT helps you to realise that there are other choices in the way you see things and I am thankful for that training. With mindfulness though comes a new focus. You find your breath within and focus on bringing your attention to the rising and falling. This is always with you and if I ever feel panicky now I try to just focus on my inhale and exhale. I was lucky enough to get onto a mindfulness course, again run by Oxfordshire Mind. I had to wait six months but it was well worth the wait. I also can’t recommend enough the book ‘Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.
I don’t think panic is completely gone but it’s been a while since I felt those awful, gut-wrenching sensations. I am scared that panic attacks will return one day but I know far much more about them now so I hope that I’ll be better equipped to deal with them. I’m also thankful in a weird way as I have discovered so much more about myself and learnt some wonderful things – discovering meditation and yoga has come out of my experiences with anxiety, and I can’t imagine life without either now!
If you’re dealing with panic at the moment, I reassure you that it will be ok. It’s a horrible feeling but my advice would be a) to talk to someone/people you trust about what’s going on, b) talk to your doctor and find out if there is a local Mind service or NHS CBT offering, c) read all the books and websites you can on panic and understanding what is happening in your body – as I said, it’s far less scary when you can explain the sensations and why they are happening. There is a wealth of information online – see the Mental Health Foundation website. I also help out with a local website, Oxford Mental Health Forum that has some great resources and information. You’re definitely not alone if you’re suffering from panic or anxiety!
Visit Louise’s blog at: http://louliveswell.blogspot.co.uk/.