The Catch 22 Of The Panic Attack

My recent panic attacks seemed to come from nowhere. They appeared suddenly and without much warning.

I’d experienced panic attacks in my early to mid 20s. They were due to many things; a party lifestyle, me having not much idea where my life was heading and (the main offender in my opinion) a new contraceptive pill called “Dianette” that had an adverse effect on me.

My very first panic attack happened during a rather heavy party weekend on holiday in Barcelona with some friends. We’d been burning the candle at both ends and drinking far too much. One day during our stay we went up to the top of Gaudi’s Sagrada Família. If you’ve been you’ll know that this amazing building is rather high, with small little turrets you can stand on. I thought I was ok with heights, but on this day it had a horrible affect and brought on my first experience of a panic attack. Back then I had no idea what I was experiencing. I just knew I felt petrified and very very wrong. It was a really hard thing to explain to my friends. The experience left a horrible looming feeling that was tricky to shift. It got worse when I began panicking that I might experience it again….feeling panicked about a panic attack is one of those horribly ironic catch 22 situations. It would be funny if it didn’t feel so horrendous.

I tried to investigate how to make the feelings stop. I went to the GP who suggested counselling sessions and anti-depressants. I had hypnotherapy. Nothing was working. In fact I distinctly remember feeling like I was going to have a panic attack during a hypnotherapy session! I began to fear leaving the house. I was developing symptoms of agoraphobia. I hating being in certain environments like near big tall buildings (a weird kind of reverse vertigo) or vast open spaces. It was pretty bleak. After a few weeks struggling, it was my mum who helped me. She asked me if there was anything at all I’d done differently over the past few weeks. That’s when I told her about my change of contraceptive pill. It was the first time I’d thought it relevant. As an experiment I stopped taking it. About 2 days later I was feeling much better. I was angry that the GP hadn’t thought of this. I recovered, and hadn’t really thought too much about panic attacks (unless I was boarding a flight!) ever since..until recently.

I was out running. Usually I go in the mornings but I’d had a rubbish day that day and hadn’t been. I thought a run might help make me feel better so off I went, even though by then it was 6pm and dark. I remember feeling slightly vulnerable out running in the dark with my headphones in, but didn’t think too much of it. I finished my allotted 30 mins. It had felt like quite a tough run. I was really out of breath and my heart rate was up a lot. I happened to finish my run in an area of Brighton where there were high rise flats on either side of me. For some reason that was all it took to bring on this surge of panic. I suppose my already raised heart rate, the high-rise buildings either side of me and the dark all created the perfect storm. I didn’t know whether to run or hide. I had an urge to run but found this made the panic mount even more so I slowed to a walk. I then had an urge to get under cover, quickly…but obviously there was none, bar a rather flimsy bus shelter. I considered for a brief moment simply knocking on someone’s door and begging for help, but I realised how ridiculous that would seem. Part of me wanted to flag a cab, but there weren’t any and I felt unable to hold any kind of conversation with a stranger anyway. So on I walked feeling utterly terrified. It sounds ridiculous but it felt like the high-rise buildings were going to collapse on me at any minute. I can only liken it to feeling like an ant about to be squashed by a human foot. A really strange feeling. I feel quite panicky now just remembering it. In the end it was music that saved me. I managed to pull myself together enough to pop on a new band called DBFC. Bizarrely, their electronic harmonies managed to ground me and pull me back from the brink of a full-on panic attack. I’ve never been so grateful for music in all my life. Not sure how great that is in terms of a music review, but it worked for me! I was super grateful to get home that evening.

Since that episode about 3 weeks ago I’ve been caught up in the whole “fear of the panic attack” trap. I still haven’t had a full on one, but I’ve been getting the symptoms of the beginning of them, which are horrible. They especially occur when outside in open spaces…places like on the seafront with the sea one side and high rise buildings the other, for example, or if I'm doing something like driving on the motorway. It's really hard to fathom why.

I don’t have any contraceptive pills or a party lifestyle to blame on my panic attacks this time. Just the everyday stresses of modern life for a mum of 2 trying to run a business. It was certainly a wakeup call. I realise now that on the surface I can feel ok, but behind the scenes my sub conscious may not feel the same.

So what have I done since? I’ve tried to have a little reassess of my life. I realise that I’m not focussed enough. Social media and screen time has a lot to answer for. I spend my time being so reactive and not proactive. I vow to make 2019 a little more focussed and screen time free, especially in the evenings. I’ve also started meditating using the Headspace App, which has helped me more than I believed it would. I realise how full our brains are with thoughts constantly. Even when relaxing I have a habit of flooding my brain with STUFF STUFF STUFF on social media. It can’t be good. I now see the logic of trying to free up space in our minds, and Headspace is perfect for that. I suppose that is why music helped too. It helps to slow down the brain, relax it, and focus on one thing.

Things have calmed down a lot with the panic attacks recently, but that fear is always there. I’ll let you know how it pans out over the next few weeks. I have also found the brilliant Anna Mathur on Instagram (ironically!) who has a “coping with anxiety” style course coming up any day now which I plan to do. I shall report back! I’d love to hear about your experience of panic attacks and any lifestyle changes you’ve found that help alleviate them. Do let me know!

Sally Bunkham is the founder of Mum's Back, who provide luxury hamper gifts for new mums whilst raising awareness of perinatal mental health issues. £1 from every package sold goes to PANDAS Foundation