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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor

How I Overcame Panic Attacks



Panic attacks are the worst manifestation of anxiety disorder, at least in my opinion and personal experience. Basically, the “fight or flight” response of the body goes into overload. Triggers are various – work stress, social situations, the environment, for example. I had never made the association with alcohol abuse but now I understand it.

 

Alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system. Hence the reason that our reactions slow down, speech becomes slurred, and vision blurred when we are drunk. The brain seeks to counteract this process by providing stimulus. That is part of the reason why symptoms of withdrawal – hangovers – include sweating, shaking, and a general feeling of sickness.

 

I had been drinking heavily throughout the long holiday weekend. On the first day back at work, I went out at lunchtime to meet an old colleague. From memory, I didn’t even have a drink with the meal – perhaps a glass of wine – but I remember feeling on edge.

 

I went back to the office and sat down at the desk. I started to feel a bit faint and dizzy. My heart was racing. I told a colleague that I felt unwell and asked her to take me upstairs to the medical room.

 

When we reached the medical room, I sat in a chair and quickly got worse. I was gasping to breathe. I felt tingling down my arms. Rather weirdly, my hands started to turn into claws. Then I felt my mouth and tongue turn numb. It was later explained to me that this is what we call tetany. I gasped to my colleague, “I’m going” and I felt inwardly that I was dying.

 

Somebody had called an ambulance. I don’t recall how long it took – not long – and paramedics came into the room. I’m not sure how they assessed the situation, but I remember being told to breathe deeply into a paper bag. I began to normalise.

 

It was explained to me that this technique helps the sufferer to breathe in carbon dioxide and counter the effect of excess oxygen in the bloodstream. I subsequently came to learn that the same effect can be achieved, at least partially, by covering the whole face with both hands and breathing deeply.

 

Eventually, I was strapped into a wheelchair and loaded into the ambulance. I was taken to hospital, where they ran some basic checks on my heart. I confessed to the medical team what I thought had brought on the attack. Eventually, I was discharged to my GP with a brown envelope containing a confession about my drinking.

 

The GP referred me to an alcohol treatment unit. I received a psychiatric assessment. This was followed by about twelve weeks of intensive psychotherapy, starting two times per week. But the initial priority for me was “first aid” to cope with the panic attacks.

 

The “first aid” measures included:

 

1.     Medication – I was prescribed beta-blockers for a while to induce a state of calmness. These work through slowing the heart and blocking the effect of adrenaline.

2.     Breathing technique – I was taught how to breathe properly. The idea is to breathe in deeply through the nose, hold, and exhale slowly through the mouth. I was told to look at the body of a baby when it’s sleeping deeply. The stomach is pushed out while breathing in and pulled in while breathing out. The idea is to replace gasping with slow deep breathing.

3.     Meditation – I was taught how to meditate. I’ve written extensively about this in an earlier blog called Meditation and Addiction Recovery. I was taught to lie on my back, with pillows under my shoulders and behind my knees. I would close my eyes, breathe deeply, and use muscle relaxation techniques. The latter involved clenching and then relaxing muscles, starting from the feet, moving up from the legs to the middle body, the shoulders and then to the mouth, the eyes and so on. Initially, this lasted about thirty minutes, but I can now replicate the process anywhere – on the train, sat at my desk – for varying lengths of time.

4.     “Comfort blanket” – I carried a paper bag in my pocket because if all else failed then I knew that I could do what I’d been shown by the paramedics. Rather strangely, I also used chewing gum to help concentration. I’ve never used chewing gum in my life outside of the periods I was suffering from panic attacks. Even more strangely, perhaps, I sometimes wore sunglasses when I went out. Roy Orbison explains that his trademark sunglasses helped him to feel comfortable performing in front of a live audience.

 

The problem with panic attacks, as fellow sufferers will know, is that psychological triggers or reminders will quickly bring on the next one. At first, I was very fragile. I didn’t want to leave the house, but I forced myself because I was aware of the risk of developing something like agoraphobia. I walked to the local high street, bought a loaf of bread, and walked back home again.

 

I probably returned to work too soon, but it helped that colleagues knew what happened to me and were very supportive. Meanwhile, therapy was focusing on the underlying causes of my so-called “alcohol use disorder”.

 

It took me about three years to overcome the panic attacks. I wouldn’t say that I was fully recovered. There were situations that still made me feel uncomfortable. Most notably, I developed a fear of heights. It’s not surprising when you think about it. Anything that would bring on a feeling of dizziness was a trigger.

 

Throughout this period, I was sober. Indeed, my sobriety extended for five years. But then I relapsed and eventually returned to heavy drinking. Then I had another panic attack but at least I knew how to cope. This opened my eyes to the association of alcohol abuse with panic attacks. I had never experienced panic attacks before my first collapse, and I’ve never suffered since achieving long-term sobriety.

 

Nevertheless, it still took another three years to get well again. When I look back at all of this, it was awful. But I recovered and built a successful career. And guess what? I took my first flying lesson last year. That would have been simply unimaginable some years ago!

 

Don’t suffer in silence. Seek help and share openly. Learn the techniques to cope and build resilience. Don’t be tempted to self-medicate because it will only make matters worse.

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