Come on, you can do this. Just keep it together. You’ve been practising all night, you’ll be fine. Why haven’t they arrived yet? This room is too small. Oh God it’s happening again. Heart is racing and chest is tight. Why can’t I move my arms properly? I won’t be able to speak, I’ll faint, I’m going to run around the room screaming and then everyone will realise what a freak I am. I have to get out of here now.
That is the day I walked out of a job interview, one which I really wanted minutes before it began. I had (what I now know) was a panic attack, the worst of my life.
The next two weeks were a blur of pure terror filled with hysteria, emotional outbursts, depression and constant panic, which made the ability to think rationally impossible. How had I fallen so far so quickly? What was happening to me?
I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder at the age of fifteen. I blushed violently whenever anyone spoke to me and constantly worried about being asked a question in class. Proponal and the general aging process guided me through this phase of my life and my parents and I thought that it was just a phase. Years of these ‘phrases’ re-occurring and numerous visits to the doctor’s later led to me accepting that this was probably a condition which would flare up indefinitely.
I refused to let it control my life. It didn’t stop me from achieving my Masters degree, getting my dream job in publishing or making friends. It was something I could manage.
However, after a year at my dream job (which I moved to London from Manchester for) I started to notice some changes in myself. I felt unhappy, irritable and lethargic four working days out of five. The department I work in is full of loud and dominant characters which often made me feel anxious and uneasy. I kept asking myself – was I even happy in my job anymore? Why couldn’t I concentrate on anything? What’s wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be normal for once in my life?
Looking back, all those ‘niggling’ thoughts were setting the stage for my panic attacks. Constantly fighting how I was feeling caused my mind and body immense stress that it ultimately couldn’t cope with.
I was signed off from work for a month. Although this devastated me at first, as I had always kept my condition private, I soon realised that it was the right thing to have happened. I needed to rest in an environment where I felt safe. I also joined AnxietyUK and realised for the first time in my life that I wasn’t alone.
If I’ve learned anything from ten years of anxiety and my month of ‘madness’ it’s the following:
1. Accept and be honest about what you’re going through. Believe me – I know how hard it is to admit that you’re suffering from a mental condition. I worried that people would judge me harshly or label me as a “wimp” in the same way people might call you “annoying” or “overweight” behind your back. But you have to accept that you can’t control what people think of you; it’s what you think of yourself that really counts.
Fortunately, in contrast to what I feared, the support I got in response to me ‘coming out’ was very positive. People don’t necessarily understand what you’re dealing with, but more often than not they’ll accept it. Mental illness has to be taken seriously in the workplace now, so you don’t need to worry about losing your job.
Being honest also lifted a great deal of pressure from my shoulders. I didn’t have the stress of hiding it from people anymore. I’m not saying I like this condition, but I’ve learned to accept it in the same way I would a headache. I know what my limitations are now.
2. Exercise for at least thirty minutes a day or when you’re feeling particularly anxious. While I was on sick leave I went to the gym every day because I found it was an effective way to burn off adrenalin (and I certainly had lots of that!). It also gave me a routine and helped to distract me from my thoughts, if only for a little while. If you can’t afford gym membership then go for a run or a brisk walk, buy a fitness DVD or just do sets of star jumps and hopping. The options really are endless and unless you’re physically unable to then there isn’t an excuse not to exercise. Trust me, it helps
3. Get professional help. It’s true – doctors aren’t always so understanding or helpful when it comes to anxiety disorders. I’ve certainly had my fair share of useless advice over the years. My favourite being: “Have you tried drinking camomile tea?” A friendly piece of advice to all GPs out there: don’t ever tell a girl on the edge of a nervous breakdown that herbal tea will be the answer to her prayers. I almost screamed in her face! However, doctors are certainly more clued up on anxiety treatments these days and can suggest a wide variety of medications and therapy. My preferred drug is Sertraline, and Propanol to help when my tremors are bad. I don’t believe that medicine is the cure because ultimately you should be able to control your own brain (it belongs to you after all). However, meds definitely ease the physical symptoms and make life just a little bit easier. Be aware that it takes between two and three weeks for most anxiety medications to kick in, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t notice any immediate difference.
Another important note: Diaxapam is not the long-term solution. Trust me; I could probably compete on Mastermind with my extensive knowledge of anxiety drugs. I wanted Diaxample (Valium) more than anything due to its instant calming effects. In my experience, it just made me fall asleep and therefore could not be used as a ‘chill pill’ before a stressful situation. It’s important not to become reliant on it (mainly because it’s addictive!). However, if you’re having a truly hellish evening of constant panic attacks and despair I wouldn’t begrudge anyone a hit. It works.
4. Talk about it to a professional. Although I’m sure that your friends, family or partner would be sympathetic and try to offer advice, it won’t compare to an expert who will have an exact understanding of what you’re going through. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) certainly helped me to rationalise the ‘thinking errors’ that circulated through my brain. The important thing to remember about CBT is that you get out of it what you put in. You need to be prepared to assign at least two hours a week to complete the exercises set by your therapist. I would also highly recommend the app Thought Diary Pro (£2.99). It’s a great way to record and challenge your thoughts without having to feel self conscious about whether people will notice you scribbling on paper (who uses paper anymore?!).
In my experience, therapy is more effective when you are feeling stable. Seeing a professional before you are rested might cause you to feel frustrated and impatient for immediate results.
5. Most importantly, buy this book: Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick (2004), by David Carbonell (PH.D). Mr Carbonell is the founder and director of the Anxiety Treatment Centre in Chicago and his advice changed my life. I’ve done a great deal of research on anxiety and panic attacks over the years and I’ve never come across anything so informative and easy to follow.
The book is split into three sections. The first explains the science behind panic attacks and how they affect your brain. This helped me to understand that what I was experiencing was ‘intense discomfort’ rather than anything that could physically harm me. The second explains the ‘anxiety tricks’ and how they fool your brain into reacting negatively. The final section introduces what Campbell calls ‘exposure therapy’. This is a programme that he confidently asserts will help you to conquer the panic attacks. In a nutshell, he states that it’s important to face the panic rather than run from it and the programme can move as fast or as slow as you like.
I was also impressed by the amount of free content available on his website: www.anxietycoach.com. Lots of chapters and tips from the book are included on the website, so you can still benefit from his advice even if you can’t afford the guide.
Panic attacks are truly one of the most horrendous experiences and it takes a brave person to deal with them on a regular basis. In spite of this, no matter how hard it gets or how hopeless you feel it’s important to remember that it can and will get better.