I had my first panic attack when I was 18. It was Christmas time and I was back from Uni. I remember being in bed when I suddenly felt a wave of nausea. The feeling built up gradually, to the point where I was convinced I was about to vomit. I rushed downstairs to the bathroom but nothing happened. My Mum had heard me coming down the stairs and appeared at the doorway to check if I was ok. That was when the pain hit me. A sharp, intense pain penetrated my chest; it felt like I’d been stabbed. I began to pace the house but each step I took the pain resonated from my foot up to my chest. With every action, the pain continued to intensify, as did my desperation. By that point I was crying with fear. I was convinced I was having a heart attack; that I was going to die. My Mum at this point rushed to the phone and rang an ambulance. Unable to control my breathing, I began to hyperventilate. Again this was a new experience and again I was terrified. Anyone who has experienced this knows how difficult to reign back in your breathing pattern is, especially when you don’t understand what is happening to you. I didn’t understand that I needed to calm myself and try to relax and that by doing so would release some of the pain. The ambulance arrived whilst I was sitting on the sofa, hunched over with my hands clamped over my head. The paramedics were incredibly calm and patient with me, especially as it took about 15 minutes for them to convince me to move. I’m a very prideful person and even in the state I was in, I didn’t want to be helped or go to the hospital.
It was my mum who first suggested it might have been a panic attack. In hospital the doctor took an ECG, which came back normal and then ordered an x-ray of my chest, that again, came back as fine. His opinion was I’d pulled a muscle in my chest. My conclusion; he had no idea and was bullshitting.
For the next 3 years, I had numerous panic attacks, I couldn’t honestly say how many. I found heat of any kind soothed the pain and calmed me down. I would take a shower, sit on the floor with my back to the radiator in winter. Finally I bought a lavender pillow I could heat up and then place on my back or chest. The attacks would feel like they lasted for hours, and some did. Most attacks would occur in a cluster of two or three over the space of a week. The most frustrating element of the panic attacks was they would nearly always happen in the early hours of the morning. After each bout, I would be utterly exhausted.
I was finally offered CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) when I was 21. Before this, I was fobbed off many, many times by doctors who knew what was wrong with me. They’d say have a relaxing bath, drink some herbal tea before bed…blah, blah, blah. What I really needed was to learn why this was occurring and what I could do about it. The six CBT appointments I had were incredibly helpful. I learnt to accept that this was something that happened to me and that when it did, I could control it. Each time I had an attack, I would say to myself, ‘I know this is a panic attack. I know nothing terrible is going to happen to me. I know it is up to me to control and stop this.’ My counsellor showed me relaxation techniques and how to regulate my breathing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate and help calm my thoughts. My favourite relaxation technique was to tense and then relax my body starting with my toes and moving up to my neck.
Since CBT, the amount and severity of attacks have diminished and now I rarely suffer from them. This year, I have only had one major one. What I’ve realised is the anxiety and panic attacks are intertwined with Bipolar. They are part of the cycle; it often starts off with mania, that then subsides to a point where I feel devoid of energy. The offshoot of this is either a massive panic attack, a deep depression or both. I now look at panic attacks as my body’s way of saying ‘No, I’ve had enough of this nonsense, you’ve been using my reserve battery for too long, so I’m fucking you up for a bit.’ One piece of advice from my time talking to Gp’s that wasn’t entirely useless was having a bath. When I’m stressed or panicky, I’ll run a bath full to the brim with bubbles overflowing. It’s my safe place. Lying back in that warm water soothes me and distracts me from the pain and pressure I’m feeling. I lived in a house with only a shower for three years, but now I have one again I make sure I take a bath every single day to relax.
You can watch my video about panic attacks here
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