Pushing the panic button - how anxiety sorted out my head and heart.

The first time I suffered a panic attack was at 3am mid-week in 2012, during a time I lived alone. I was training for the New York marathon. After a 10k run, shower and dinner, I was, as usual, in bed by 10pm. Five hours later I awoke with my heart pounding, palms sweating and finding it hard to breath. I lay there rigid wondering if I was having a heart attack. After 20 minutes I rang NHS Direct hoping for reassurance, which I got from a nurse who questioned my symptoms, told me I wasn’t having a heart attack, to relax, but call back if the feeling got worse. I lay there until 5 am as my heart returned to normal and fell back to sleep.

The same thing happened twice that week so I booked an appointment with a doctor, who told me I was training too hard and to take it easier, which I reluctantly did.

That didn’t stop the panic attacks. Going to bed every night wondering if I was going to wake up with my heart pounding took its toll and soon I was spending more time anxious than relaxed. I almost became used to it, decided not to mention it to anyone and just get on with things the best I could. Before long, however, it was three to four attacks a week so it was back to the (same) doctor, who told me my heart was fine, but that I was, in fact, having panic attacks.

One in ten of us will experience a panic attack at some point, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and for most it feels as if you are about to die or lose your mind. I can vouch for both. In a search to find out why this was happening to me, I googled and discovered experts believe attacks are the result of a ‘fight or flight’ response when the body is flooded with the stress hormone adrenaline, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure (a useful physical response to danger as it readies the body for action). In a panic attack, however, it’s abrupt with no obvious trigger. They generally last about 20 minutes, occur sporadically and for no reason, but are a symptom of anxiety disorder, a mental health condition characterised by irrational overwhelming feelings of tension, uncertainty and fear. At the time, I, or anyone I know, would never have called me an anxious person.

I flew to New York in early November to run the marathon and returned home to move into a new flat. The panic attacks continued to the point where I felt constantly overwhelmed at the prospect of having another one and it was starting to slowly ruin my life. The smallest things became hard to cope with. I cancelled nights out, took days off work and took bath after bath as it was the only thing that calmed me. My record was 11 in one day.

After taking three weeks off work (I told my boss I had shingles), I was mentally exhausted and returned to my doctor to plead for a solution. She immediately recommended CBT (Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy) - a form of counselling known as the main go-to treatment for anxiety, and effective for 70 to 90 per cent of patients.

I was told it could reduce my panic attacks through control of the earliest symptoms, or make them disappear instantly, depending on the severity. I started with weekly sessions and the psychologist focused on the difficulties I was experiencing, encouraging me to identify and take control of the thought processes that were triggering my attacks. We worked together to identify and understand the nature of the problem.

For many, panic attacks can be linked to a trauma – from bereavement or bullying to a specific one-off incident. I traced mine back to my sister’s death in 1986 which had set off a pattern of behavior, thoughts and feelings which had led to my mind and body telling me, through the attacks, that I needed to resolve these issues. Essentially, I had never grieved for her, and it was finally time to do that. With the CBT I felt a sense of hope that my life would not continue in a constant state of panic.

I learned techniques, made lifestyle adjustments and introduced more relaxation into my life by increasing my exercise and yoga practice, leading me to finally becoming a Personal Trainer. Stress can cause panic attacks and the fear of having another attack can become greater than the anxiety itself, so relaxation was important to help me be aware of tension in my body. I learned so much about myself and after six weeks of sessions, the attacks ceased and I started to feel more positive. My therapist did, however tell me, that even when my symptoms or attacks were under control, I should never take my eye off the ball. She had seen so many abandon the CBT techniques once they’ve overcome their panic attacks, only for the problem to return.

That was five years ago now and I’ve had two or three attacks since then but with the awareness I have and the techniques I learned through CBT, they've lasted only a few minutes and the fear and anxiety diminished almost immediately.

It may sound strange, and although I didn't feel it at the time, I'm thankful it happened.