Remember to Breathe!

Last week I suffered my first ever full-blown panic attack.

I honestly thought I was about to die: I couldn’t breathe properly, I saw double, my sight began to blur, and my head felt as though it had been stuck in an oven. Although seated, I felt myself fading out of consciousness.

Luckily, something within me urged me to try and sit forward and take some deep breaths, and very quickly the awful sensations receded. Nevertheless, it left me feeling confused and scared. Had I had a mini stroke, a TIA, perhaps? If so, it was damned awful timing considering how much I have changed my lifestyle recently!

With Tony at work, I was completely on my own (except for the dog, and I couldn’t envision him resuscitating me in an emergency) and I really did not know what to do or think. Being the sensible, level-headed girl that I am (ok, ok, maybe I have my moments!), I phoned 111, and went through their list of questions – with most of the answers being ‘no’. This made me feel better, as it seemed less likely that anything serious was wrong. Then the guy on the other end told me that I should present myself at A&E within the next hour. Suddenly I didn’t feel relieved any more.

Thanks to the taxi-driving services of my mum, I ended up in the A&E reception. It was a long wait, and the noisiness and lighting of the place felt overwhelming to my seemingly hypersensitive nerves. At last I saw a doctor who, to be honest, didn’t seem that interested (probably overworked, so I forgive him). He asked a few questions, listened to my heart, took my blood pressure (normal, as usual) and more or less said that there wasn’t much to worry about.

Well, that was a good thing of course, but I still wanted to know what I had just experienced and why – because I really, really wanted to avoid it happening again. As is my natural geeky way of being, I did some research and it all pointed to a panic attack. Now, I had been experiencing random moments of anxiety for the last couple of months: those ‘butterflies in the tummy, and something bad’s going to happen, I can’t face the world’ type of moments – usually, for no known reason at around either 5pm in the afternoon, or else in the middle of the night. But they’d been brief and almost insignificant, and so I had ignored them.

I always thought that panic attacks occurred during or after something scary happening to a person. But I had been relaxing with a cup of tea after finishing listening to the – albeit tense – ending of an audio-book. There was no trigger that I could find, and absolutely no warning. Later I discovered that random panic attacks are quite common – and they don’t have to be accompanied by an obvious cause.

I guess I have been under some stress for a few months, and having issues with cyclothymia* makes me more susceptible. Nevertheless, I sat down and looked at what was going on in my life and how I could change some things to make it less stressy.

Anxiety issues are a big problem for many in this crazy world, and I wanted to write this to show that, if you suffer, you are not alone. We, as human beings, are not built to cope with the levels of stress that modern day life throws at us. And some of us cope less well than others – but this does not in any way make us weaker specimens. We are perhaps just a bit more sensitive to contemporary pressures – maybe because we have personalities that are more empathic, introverted, or wired to please than others. Maybe it’s because we are perfectionists, or take on too much. Maybe we are hypersensitive to the lights and sounds of the 21st century. Whatever the reason, however it manifests, there are ways to help ourselves.

  1. Close your eyes and sit or lie down.
  2.  Take a long, deep breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. This may be be difficult at first if you are hyperventilating, but keep trying. Repeat the word ‘relax’, or ‘calm’, in your head, with each breath. Also, trying counting the breaths up to ten and then start again – having something else to focus on really helps distract the brain from its panic response. By the way, don’t use the old paper bag trick – recent studies have shown it to be of little use and, at its worst, harmful.
  3. When you have recovered, look at what happened and try to identify any triggers.
  4.  Start to practice mindfulness on a daily basis, as this has been proven to help in case of anxiety. Since my own attack, I have started doing my practice again, after lapsing for a while, and have definitely found it to be of benefit. I haven’t felt any signs of anxiousness or overwhelm for over a week now, even though this time of year can get very full on.

These steps should help, but remember, if you are ever in the slightest doubt that your symptoms may be those of something more serious (especially if you have a pain in the chest, arm or jaw), go and see a GP to be on the safe side.

*cyclothymia – a milder (though still debilitating) version of bipolar II.

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