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Gary’s Story: Panic attacks – the enemy within

Since around the age of 16 I have suffered from severe panic attacks. In this article I want to explain what it is, how I cope with them and show you that there is nothing to be embarrassed about. It is not a weak man that suffers attacks like these.  It is a man who has tried to be to strong for to long and the mind is telling him enough is enough.

So what is a panic attack? Firstly, I am not a medical professional so what I know I have either been told or have experienced first hand.

An attack is made up of two things: a psychological ‘trigger’, which I will go into shortly, and a chemical change in your body. Knowing about both can help you stop an attack before it happens or take control during the attack itself.

Let’s start with the chemical side. Fight or flight.  We’ve all heard this term before. It’s the human body’s natural response to any perceived danger, internal or external. A choice is made to either run or fight. The heart rate increases, the immune system is suppressed, blood flow to the legs increases in preparation to move fast, and more pressure is placed on the heart. Breathing becomes accelerated.

The psychological part is much harder.  There is always a trigger. This can be anything from something you see or hear, to something you smell or touch. It can be from a few minutes ago or a thought from the day or week before.  It can be something tiny and seemingly insignificant, or something major and obvious. Each attack and trigger is unique to you. Only you can find and link the trigger, and that is not easy, I won’t lie. The only way I found mine was to keep a log of attacks and look for any patterns such as time of day, any particular events or anything special on the days etc.

So what does an attack feel like? As I said, panic attacks are unique to you, but there are similarities, since our body’s chemistry is the same no matter how old you are, what sex you are or your ethnicity. The chest can go tight, like a crushing pain, as the heart works hard to pump blood faster around your body. Some people who have experienced panic attacks say that they thought they were having a cardiac arrest. This is a normal reaction to this physical symptom, and can be very distressing.  Your breaths become shallow and fast, as the mental panic causes hyperventilation. This causes a lack of oxygen in the body, so your panic is exacerbated as your hands shake and you feel dizzy and weak. Sounds horrible? It is. To those who have never experienced this, I hope you never do. I would like point out here that the immune system is suppressed when you enter “fight or flight” and staying in this state for long periods of time could cause longer term problems, but again I not a doctor, so you should talk to your GP about the long term effects.

Psychology wise, it is like facing your worst fear with the terror factor cranked up to eleven.  It’s a horrible thing to have to go through. The thoughts of “I am gonna die, this is a heart attack”, as I used to, increases the anxiety making the reaction worse and completing the cycle of the attack.

So, panic attacks sound shit scary. How do I now stop them?

There are some techniques and tips I have learned over the years:

1) A sudden bitter taste in your mouth can be an early warning sign, as it is usually caused by adrenaline being secreted into the blood stream. If you taste this, be on your guard and start on the further steps.

2) As an attack starts you may experience hyperventilation and fast and/or shallow breaths. IMPORTANT: focus on your breathing. Slow, deep, regulated breaths. Fill your lungs with as much air as possible and release it slowly.  In through the nose, out through the mouth.  Sit down and concentrate on your breathing and nothing else.

3) Try to remain calm.  Easier said than done, I know, but remind yourself you are not in danger, you are safe and that the attack WILL pass.

4) Distraction. This is a great way to stop an attack or stop further attacks once you regain control. Go for a walk, listen to music, read a book, go to the gym, call a friend and talk to them.

5) If your panic attacks continue, or last protracted amounts of time, seek medical help.  If you know that you are definitely having a panic attack, the above techniques aren’t working and you are unable to control the attack, contact your GP or NHS Direct or dial 111.  If you think it might be another medical condition, such as a heart attack, contact emergency services immediately.

I hope that shines a light on another male ‘taboo. I repeat again a panic attack is not a sign of weakness, it’s a very real psychological and medical condition which actually has very little to do with the general understanding of the term ‘panic’, or your ability to ‘cope’ with the stuff life throws at you. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and can happen to anybody at any time in their life.  Most importantly, it can be beaten. Above all else remember the below:

You are not alone.

Gary

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