Conquering Anxiety & Panic Attacks
Very recently my psychologist said this wonderful thing to me: “What do you want to do now David? Because I don’t think you need my help anymore.”
That was such an awesome thing to hear, and what’s even more awesome is that I knew she was right, I’m okay now. I still get anxious, everyone does, but I can deal with it because I know how to look after myself.
So, I thought this would be a good time to write it all down and maybe someone else can read this and get something out of it.
So here goes…
Let me give you some background…
Eight years ago I had my first panic attack, it felt like it came out of nowhere, I had never felt anything like it and I genuinely thought I might die. I ended up calling my Dad who came over, took me to his place and I spent the night there feeling absolutely lost and freaked out.
Now as it turns out, what happened was that I had just arrived home after a grueling 15 hour flight from Europe, where I had been holidaying with my family and then visiting my friends whom I hadn’t seen for years.
Suddenly I was back home on my own, I was tired, I was lonely and I was stressed out from travel fatigue.
That my friends is a deadly combination… but one that I had never known could lead to a panic attack, in fact I didn’t even know I’d had a panic attack, all I knew was that something really weird and really scary had just happened to me and I had no idea why.
Well, I went home again, and never felt comfortable there at all. I would be fine during the day, then night would come and I’d freak out, so I started visiting some friends after work, and sleeping on their couches to avoid being at home alone. Then I just moved in, I mean why not right?
I slowly started to expand the list of things that made me feel bad, I didn’t like going out, drinking only made things worse, and being alone was off the list. Basically I became a socially dependent hermit.
I didn’t tell my family what was really happening, I didn’t know what to tell them, and I was a bit ashamed by it all. I saw a doctor about not being able to sleep and got myself some very strong sleeping pills in an effort to deal with my main issue of being alone at night.
All of this continued for 3 long years…
I met someone, or more precisely, someone met me (because I don’t go out remember?). A lovely lady named Emma found me at some party at our house invited me over to a party at her house, which was literally 4 houses down the road (ie, a safe distance) and you know what happens next.
Did this mean I was cured? Hell no! It actually made things worse before it made things better. Now I had someone I could emotionally rely on and pin all of my anxiety related issues onto, thereby making Emma the cornerstone of my convoluted coping mechanism.
Anxiety is a cunning beast
You see what anxiety does is this, it suggests things to you, it makes you think about worse case scenarios for everything. Such as:
Wouldn’t it be horrible if you had a panic attack on this train? Or on a plane? You’d be stuck up there freaking out with no way to get off and no one to call…
See what it did there? Now I don’t want to fly, I don’t want to catch public transport… the list goes on and it grows and grows and grows. If you recall how this all started, all that I used to worry about was being alone overnight, now there are so many things I am worried about… I’m actually getting worse.
Life continues around me
Meanwhile life goes on, my career is advancing, I’ve changed jobs twice and worked my way up to better and better jobs. My relationship with Emma is strong and we’ve decided to buy an apartment together, so we can start a family. I’m still having panic attacks every now and then, but mostly I avoid all situations that might make me even a little bit anxious and if anything starts to feel off, I leave as soon as possible and go home, where I take my medication to help me sleep.
Emma is my rock, she keeps me stable and if she is with me then I will be okay.
So now I’m a functioning anxiety sufferer, in the same way functioning alcoholics think they’ve got it under control but really have absolutely no control at all.
It took something quite important for me to face the facts about how my anxiety had been worsening and taking control of my life, and that was my son. There’s nothing quite like the sleeplessness, stress, financial pressure and overwhelming effort that you put into looking after your first child.
My son was born 4 years after my first panic attack, and by the time we celebrated his second birthday both Emma and I were not dealing with life very well. Our son was amazing, he is an awesome kid, but his parents were a wreck.
I started getting panic attacks at work now, the list of things that could set me off was huge. Planes, trains, buses, lifts, confined spaces, crowds, new places, long car trips, public speaking, going out, movie theaters, music gigs, being alone, anything not going perfectly to plan, not having a plan, not having a backup plan….
The funny thing is, if I hadn’t told you I was like this, you probably wouldn’t have known, I was doing a pretty damn good job of hiding my anxiety from people, I had become an expert at excuse making and had some pretty convoluted coping mechanisms in place so I could just barely function.
So I finally bit the bullet and went back to our new family GP and laid it all out to her, she referred me to a psychologist and put me on some regular medication to help me manage the day to day and get better rest.
I went to my first psychology visit six years after my first panic attack, six years! If I could go back in time I’d slap myself!
My first session was a game changer, my psychologist explained to me what a panic attack is, how it works in your body and why that makes you feel a certain way.
A panic attack is an involuntary triggering of the body’s fight or flight instinct by the brain. Your body is filled with adrenaline to get it ready to fight and your breathing speeds up to provide extra oxygen, which ups your heart rate.
This translates physically to increased sweating, body temperature rise, the jitters and feeling short of breath, there are also some minor hormonal changes which are what make you feel scared, because if there is nothing to fight… it must be flight.
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, this will probably sound very familiar, if you haven’t then I have nothing to compare it to sorry… just count yourself lucky I guess, although I assume if you’ve ever been in a fight, maybe you get it too.
So now I know what it is, how do I beat it?
Generalisation and Cognitive bias
Those 2 big words are basically an explanation of how I had gone from having one isolated anxiety attack, to being someone with a crippling anxiety disorder over a period of six years.
The first thing that happened is that I associated any experience that was similar to my first anxiety attack as a potential trigger, I then expanded upon those triggers by subconsciously linking them to other potential triggers. If I found myself in a situation that ‘could’ cause anxiety, I would basically make myself anxious and trigger my anxiety all by myself.
That is the crux of how anxiety works, something makes you anxious, so you assume anything similar will make you anxious and so on and so on until you head into the realms of agoraphobia.
Now saying I fought back might sound a bit dramatic, but in many respects the term works well, here’s why: The toughest part about overcoming anxiety is that you have to expose yourself to anxious situations in a controlled manner and overcome them. So basically it’s exposure therapy, the more times you succeed without anxiety, the less likely you are to be anxious next time… until you never feel anxious about it again.
There are tools and techniques you learn to help manage anxiety during these situations, and a lot of it comes down to your breathing and your thinking, controlling the former will allow you to have more control over the latter.
The way you breathe can fundamentally change how your body functions in times of anxiety and stress.
When you are anxious, you heart rate goes up and your body starts to crave oxygen so it can pump it around to your muscles allowing you to fight or run per your fight or flight instincts. However if you deprive your body of oxygen, your heart rate will decrease and your brain will send your body it’s slow down signals.
That’s why in movies you see people breathing into paper bags, because they are inhaling their expelled air which has a higher concentration of CO2 therefore making their heart rate drop. However you really don’t need a paper bag, you can do it through some simple breathing exercises.
So now I know what I’m fighting, and I have a good idea of why it’s hitting me and even some pre-emptive idea of when it’s going to hit me. Now I need to do that hard part, arm myself with some tools and go out into the world and practice using them in real world situations.
This is the bit that sucks, it’s like exercise (which is really good for you if you have anxiety or depression too by the way), the only way you are going to get mentally fit is by exercising your emotional state and training yourself. Exposure to what makes you anxious and repeatedly overcoming those situations using the tools you’ve prepared is the only way to start overcoming anxiety.
So I started out small: taking the train. I hated the train, it’s cramped, you can’t get out of it, sometimes they break down (sometimes more often than not), they go through tunnels which are even more scary and they can be quite noisy, once you start feeling anxious on a train full of strangers… the place feels like a slowly moving inescapable death trap.
Here’s what my approach to dealing with train rides and eventually becoming comfortable with trains in general was.
Start small: take short trips and then walk the rest.
Pick the same carriage: predictability makes things easier.
Stand near the doors: If I don’t expect to get a seat I won’t be upset if I don’t get one, plus I can look outside.
Memorise the route: I started to memorise landmarks in between stations so I could break the trip up into tiny steps, ticking them off made the trip seem shorter.
Watch the people: Start of by just scanning everyone in the train, do things like count how many people are reading, how many are playing on their phone, how many have headphones… keep your mind busy elsewhere and time will pass quicker.
Have a backup plan: if all the above fails and you start feeling anxious, have someone you can call to get you through to the next station, then get off, and try again next time.
Write a checklist: I had this handy list of anxiety busting techniques on hand that I referred to before the trip and sometimes during, try not to obsess over the list, just use it to boost your confidence.
By pushing yourself little by little you will start to feel more empowered, and once you realise you can conquer one thing that used to be nigh on impossible, you will find it easier to move on to the next and the next and the next.
There are still some things that I dread, I know I can handle them if I have to, but I don’t enjoy it. That’s actually completely normal, I don’t have panic attacks, I have moment of nervousness and unease, but I know they will pass, and I know I have ways to make that passing of time easier.
Here’s an example…
I had to take a 2 hour flight down to Sydney for my grandfather's 80th birthday, I was dreading it so much. The idea of being stuck in a confined cabin for 2 hours with a bunch of strangers was almost unbearable, I kept picturing myself having a panic attack and ending up being sedated or something…
To get through the flight, I had some hardcore anti-anxiety pills, and I brought my laptop and headphones. My plan was to take my pills, shut myself out from the world and play games or watch a movie.
I slept horribly the night before, then felt really anxious all morning all the way up to the gate, then we boarded and I thought I was going to be okay, until the stewardess closed the door and turned the massive locking arm and it went “thud”. That was it… heart rate went sky high and I hit the panic button big time.
Thankfully I had my wife and son with me, so I pressed the call button and told the stewardess about my anxiety issues, she asked me if I wanted to get off, I sucked it up and said “no”, I took my pill and asked if I could forgo the rules and put my tray down and play on my laptop, they kindly allowed that and I made it through the flight feeling like crap the whole time.
However, my wife and son didn’t get to enjoy the flight with me, and for the whole trip I was annoyed at myself for panicking, while also dreading the flight back even more.
That was within the first 3 months of seeing my psychologist
Fast forward a year…
This time I am taking a flight down to Melbourne with the family. I’ve spent the week leading up to it visualising myself in my seat and having a nice comfortable time. I have a meditation app on my phone and once again a laptop, only this time with headphones for me and my son so we can watch a movie together. I’ve also made myself a little confidence booster checklist that’s been on my desk all week and will go with my on the plane.
The night before I make sure I get a good night's sleep (some medication helped) and the next day I am nervous, but I reframe that from nervousness to excitement. I check us all in online beforehand and pick seats up the back of the plane so I won’t see the doors being closed and to match with my visualisation work.
Did you know that the physical feeling of nervousness and excitement are the same? Every time I feel nervous I ask myself, “am I nervous or excited?” It helps…
The day for the flights arrive and I am pretty calm actually, we go through the usual pre-flight stuff and take our seats. I am discussing our plans for the trip with my son and we are watching the ground crew do their thing. The doors close and I don’t feel a thing… I didn’t even need the laptop on. We still watched the movie (of course) but we had fun, actual real fun, on a plane! It was great.
Coming back was even easier… I’d conquered one flight and now I know I can conquer them all, now they’re just fun.
The Battle is won, the war continues…
Being ‘cured’ of an anxiety disorder is impossible, as I’ve learnt how to recognise my emotional triggers I am now a changed person, not in a bad way or a good way, just changed.
I will always feel anxious, everyone does however now I know how to recognise normal anxiety and make sure it doesn’t turn into unhealthy anxiety. I still get the occasional wave of uncomfortable verge of panic feelings, but I recognise them for what they are, fleeting moments that will pass and life will go on.
If you made it all the way through this, thank you. This is my first Medium article and a tough one to write about. If you are battling anxiety, I hope this helps in some way, feel free to find me on social media and reach out, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.