Hello and a very warm welcome to my newly relaunched blog. I'm Paul a 40 year old family man from the UK. In this complex, information overload 21st century world, too often we lose sight of what's really important. Here I want to celebrate life, share inspirational stories, throw the spotlight on charities and causes close to my heart. Looking forward to sharing this journey with you all.
Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Panic Attacks - don't suffer in silence
Once again, it's another busy working day for me, so I've returned to my review archives.
As I've said previously one of the primary aims of this blog is to inspire readers to take control and make positive changes in their lives
So today I want to share this article I wrote about my own personal experience of panic attacks to try and demystify the subject and hopefully offer some useful suggestions and techniques on how to manage them and move forward with your life.
I have always considered myself to be a fairly laid back contented soul, fully appreciative of what I've got in life and not in any way prone to anxiety , stress or the like.
So quite honestly panic / anxiety attacks were the last thing I'd ever have expected to have direct personal experience of. But back in December 1999, a relatively innocuous bump on the head set in motion a chain of events that resulted in months of prolonged anguish, bewilderment and discomfort until I finally found a way to somehow regain control.
I appreciate that there are a multitude of possible triggers and causes for these attacks and there's certainly no magical cure-all for dealing with them, but it's really important to me to tell my story, and if in some small way it can be useful to anyone out there that would really mean an awful lot to me.
How they started
One cold December morning, I was in the bathroom and spotted something had dropped down by the side of the toilet. As I leant back upwards - crunch - I caught the front side of my head smack on the corner of our wooden cabinet, and it didn't half hurt...I managed to sit myself down, and fairly quickly afterwards felt a bump coming through and a slight headache, but other than that wasn't too concerned.
But for some reason in the two or three days or following it felt like I was still groggy, maybe because I was getting myself worked up over nothing I just couldn't be sure.
Eventually it seemed to ease off, so one night I went down to my local gym for a fairly energetic session. Towards the end of my workout I remember getting that light headed feeling again and this time with some dizziness, so I quickly called it a day and decided to drive back home. By now I was definitely getting a bit anxious, working myself into a state that I should have got things checked out by a doctor, and in my genuine naivety about the best ways to calm down I decided to try and take some deep breaths. I was gulping back the air far too quickly, and now felt a strong prickling and tingling sensation spreading first up one arm and then to the other. My heart seemed to be pounding ten to the dozen, and I felt a sort of wave of discomfort pass all the way through me.
Completely baffled and scared, even just a mile from home, I pulled over and then flagged down the next car I could see and frantically asked the couple who had stopped to call me an ambulance. They sat me down in the front seat, and as I sat there wriggling and twitching I could hear the chap talking with the emergency services. As he was describing the symptoms, particularly the pins and needles in the arms, like some kind of out-of-body experience I heard him say the word "STROKE..." - it was unthinkable, what was this, how could it be happening...
Getting checked out
Fortunately the ambulance arrived really quickly, and although still in a real state, they crew quickly settled me down and got me talking. They rigged me up to the heart rate monitors and as we journeyed to the hospital explained that although my pulse was running a little high there were really no other signs to be concerned about and most likely was an anxiety attack.
My wife understandably more than a little scared to have got a call from a complete stranger saying I was on my way into hospital, met me in A&E and stayed with me till I had my head checked out. After getting the all clear, the basic advice was simply to go home and rest up.
The whole experience really shook me up, but little did I know it was only just beginning
It's happening again
The very next time I got behind the wheel, I'd tentatively driven no more than a couple of miles when I rapidly became conscious of another 'attack' brewing up, tingling fingers, palpitations, and then that same wave. I pulled over once again, this time telling myself they would pass, to breathe slowly, to calm down. Eventually I managed to get back home, but more and more, over the next few days as I struggled to find an explanation, I felt myself losing a sense of control over things.
Frightened to drive, I found that now even being taken on a simple trip to the shops was an ordeal, I had to sit in the car and be gently coaxed back into a calmer state by my wife. We both agreed that I really needed medical advice so having just moved to the area, registered with my local surgery for the first time.
The Doctor I saw was extremely matter of fact and curtly about it all - prescribing a course of beta blockers and cutting out caffeine to level out the threat of palpitations, 10 minutes is up off you go. So duly, I started taking the tablets, and soon found that there were any number of uncomfortable side-effects to endure, particularly a heavily acidic stomach and nausea, and in truth if anything they just made me even more internally focussed and aware of the slightest change in my body state.
Why won't they stop?
If anything, over the next two or three months, things just seemed to get worse. I tried to get back to some kind of working routine, with the tablets, eventually feeling able to drive longer distances, though at one point I was still having to stop at pretty much every single service station on the motorway just to regain my composure.
I found that listening to classical music helped with the driving, at home I tried out some relaxation tapes and Tai Chi, but every now and again I was gripped by this seemingly unfathomable recurring condition, and every time I feared the tablets wearing off and the palpitations coming through. In the thick of each attack, even though each one probably lasted no more than a few minutes, it really felt as if I was dying, that I had some terrifying hidden condition that had been falsely diagnosed, that this time it wasn't going to end.
Alarmed by the increasing frequency of these occurrences, I went back to the doctor, but once again just got prescribed another course of this time even stronger beta blockers.
The final straw for me came when I was working at our head-office, waiting for a lift with some colleagues when all of a sudden I felt a real rush of discomfort, like some kind of electrical surge round the left side of my chest and the company medical officer who happened to be based on that floor, checked my heart rate at the height of the attack and decided as a precaution to refer me back to hospital.
Again, I was given the all clear, but the whole thing was really starting to take it's toll - not just on me but on my wife, who at that time had a very high-pressured job as a complaints handler was basically at the end of her tether trying to cope with nursing me through each day without really knowing what on earth was going on, or feeling that she could do anything about it.
Talk to the professionals
We both agreed that the only remaining untried option was for me to go and see a psychotherapist. Rather than constantly battling an ever growing list of symptoms and side-effects, I really needed to get some answers and somehow find a way to get back to being me again. I vividly recall the start of my first session as I was told "I know exactly what you're thinking - how can I be sitting here?" and was instantly reassured, as he went on to explain how so many of the people from all walks of life that he had seen over the years had been in that position , thinking they were alone in their suffering, unable to understand what was happening.
Gently and methodically, he described in the simplest of terms all the physiological processes involved in these attacks, how the brain can trigger the body's defence mechanisms in what's sometimes called the "fight or flight" response. Part of our biological makeup since the dawn of time, when we are threatened or in stressful situations, this natural state of heightened alert can be triggered by our brain and nervous system. He basically described each and every of the individual symptoms I'd been feeling building up to the attacks - butterflies in the tummy, awareness of the heart beat quickening in the throat, shortness of breath, a shivering sensation passing through the body, and explained that however out of control it feels at any given moment, all panic attacks will pass.
Then he told me perhaps the single most important piece in the puzzle - the surest way to virtually guarantee that you will suffer another panic attack is the moment you are convinced that you are about to have one. So having experienced that first attack behind the wheel of a car, sure enough, the majority of attacks I'd suffered subsequently were triggered when I was driving. Finally I had some answers, finally I had some understanding.
Techniques to regain control
In the following session, my counsellor took me through a number of different techniques to tackle the attacks head on. These really had an immediate impact, and I would like to share the ones that worked best for me here.
The first one is designed to gradually shift your focus from thinking about internal factors, (i.e. noticing aches and pains in the gut, sensing palpitations starting) to your surroundings to help you regain composure. Basically when you feel some symptoms of anxiety start to build up, firstly think about the specific areas where you are feeling something.
Then slowly and surely you focus on each of your five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell - one at a time. Look around you, pick out 3 or 4 objects closest to you - pick out a few of the colours, e.g. blue clothing, a red pencil, a brown carpet. Next focus on the different textures, a cotton shirt, notice the groove marks on the pencil, the woolly carpet. Now think about and try to pick out just the sounds that are surrounding you - people talking, traffic noise, a dog barking. Next what surface are you sitting on, what are you holding in your hand, how do they feel to touch. And on it goes with tastes and smells, and once you have done this for a few minutes, think back about the parts of your body that were feeling discomfort, is it still there - the chances are it will have lessened considerably and even if you are still a little edgy, simply try the technique all over again.
These techniques can be applied for all sorts of anxiety related feelings - for example, imagine you are on a crowded tube, feeling hot, cramped , claustrophobic etc - by focussing on the individual details around you, you place yourself back in the here and now, away from the internalized build up of anxiety
If you still feel that an attack is imminent, there is a more direct approach which is surprisingly effective. Instead of working yourself up about it being about to happen at any minute and frantically trying to calm yourself down, you actively try to generate the full blown attack - think back to previous attacks and how they felt at the peak, and try to will your system to bring the full attack on -what I was astonished to find was, it's virtually impossible to do. Because you are consciously sending out the signals, you are at the same time regaining control - very likely the symptoms will very quickly wear off.
The final and most important part of those sessions, was getting to the underlying causes of these attacks, and that's something that's very much down to each individual to talk through. For me I came to realise that the way I was functioning in both my home and working life, scrambling from one task to another not finishing things properly, always worrying about the next thing "I must do this, I need to do that" meant that I was actually far more likely to at some stage suffer from this kind of affliction than I'd ever imagined.
At a more deeper level, panic attacks had activated a lot of my fears around my own mortality, having to cope with the untimely death of my mother and of other close family members in the years just prior to the attacks. The message was clear, it was time to concentrate on the here and now, one thing at a time, and to get things back into balance.
Since those sessions ended in June 2000, I'm relieved to say I haven't suffered what I would class as a full blown attack in all the years since. Many of the extra symptoms disappeared once I was finally able to stop taking those infernal Beta Blockers, and at last I had the tools and understanding I needed to deal with and manage my anxieties.
Once you've experienced attacks, you can never say that they couldn't ever reoccur again, but what you can do is draw from those experiences in a positive way to make you better able to handle the many stresses we face in daily existence. I'm so grateful to my wife for sticking with me through such bewildering times, and know that the lessons I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I know that everyone has to find there own way, and whilst the counselling route was right for me, it won't always be right for everyone.
All I can say though to anyone out there who is still going through this, is not to suffer in silence, the most important thing is to find away to talk about things, there are certainly no magic prescriptions that can make it all better. There is lots of support out there, and you need to trust in yourself that with the right help you will find your own solution.