Panic attacks: what the doctor said

“When you are stressed you start to breathe using shallow breaths and this leads to hyperventilation. When you hyperventilate your blood chemistry changes significantly and that has all sorts of effects,” said the GP

The Scream, by Edvard Munch  is understood to depict the Norwegian artist’s own panic attacks (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After the trip to A&E I went to see a GP that my brother (who is a mental health nurse) told me was good at dealing with stress related issues. He diagnosed me immediately. “These were classic panic attacks, brought on by hyperventilation, brought on by stress. You can’t get over a simple virus because you are too run down. You need to make some changes.”

Excellent. Whilst there can be no doubt that I was delighted to hear that I didn’t have a heart condition, pulmonary embolisms or some kind of persistent lung infection,  the news that it was something associated with stress and mental health was hard to hear. It wasn’t medicine that I needed, it was to make some lifestyle changes.

“Your body is telling you that you can’t keep pushing yourself. This is really very common at your age. What can you change?” he asked.

“Are you saying that I am having a mid life crisis?” I asked reeling from the implication that I was clearly much older physically than I believed myself to be, whilst simultaneously calculating that I am therefore going to die aged 76.

“For some people this is what starts a mid life crisis or a nervous breakdown, and I should warn you that a lot of couples end up getting divorced when they go through things like this.”

The good news just kept on flowing.

“Can we just go back a bit, ” I said not quite ready to discuss my impending divorce with the doctor. “If panic attacks are stress related why are they so physical?”

“They are physical,” he said. “When you are stressed you start to breathe using shallow breaths and this leads to hyperventilation. When you hyperventilate your blood chemistry changes significantly and that has all sorts of effects,” he said.

This made sense immediately. For me it starts with the shallow breathing (which I don’t know I am doing) and then I feel horribly breathless and start gulping for air. Then I feel my adrenalin response kick in – you know the thing that is always described as butterflies but might be more accurately described as a surge of cold fear. At the same time I go dizzy and weak and then I start shaking and my heart starts to race. A more scientific explanation can be found here

So going back to his original question the doctor asked me again what I could change.

“At the moment everything has changed. I can barely get off the sofa I am so tired,” I said.

He nodded. Post viral fatigue is a term that the hospital had used when I initially went for a chest X ray following the respiratory virus that seemed to kick start all of this in January. I was having the sort of tiredness that you have when you are 8 weeks pregnant and a sleep sledgehammer hits you in the head and you just pass out. Except I was having it at 9:30am because the school run had exhausted me. Working from home meant that I could sleep for an hour, then get on with some work, but everything felt more difficult. Exercise was impossible because I was so out of breath and the panic attacks kept coming. I used to run 3 or even 4 times a week with the dog. A few weeks after this started I was struggling just to walk him.

But with the benefit of hindsight I can see why things had ended up this way. I was living every moment in a state of mild panic. Because Norm left before the kids were up, and usually returned after bedtime, everything was my responsibility. But I had a full time job to do to. Yes I work mainly from home but it is still a professional pressurised role. And because Norm was working at weekends (or I was) or we’d be off at a sports tournament for the kids, there was no respite or downtime. Inside my head it was a bit like this:

Havetheydonetheirteeth WhereareG’sshoes DidNormtakethedogbeforeheleft Whattimeisitnow Arewelate Wearelate Kidsgetyourdrinks Thefuckingdoghasrunoutintothefrontgarden  Wherearethecarkeys Hatstheyneedhats Blowyournose Wehavetogo Getintothecar Ihavetocallsomeoneat9amandIamnotgoingtomakeit  Ishouldtakethedogrunningafterthatcall BreakfastIdidn’thaveanybreakfast Whyismyhairlikethat Whatdoyoumeanyouneedashoeboxtoday NoIcantbringoneinlaterMyphoneisringinganditisaworkcallbutIcan’tansweritbecausekidsareshouting WhatisthatnewstorythatjustflasheduponmyphoneIshouldknowabouthatandgetitonline Stopfighting Noooooooo I’veleftmypurseinthehouseandtheirisnofuelinthecar…..and so on.

After reading the replies to last blog I wrote I know that I am not the only one that feels like this. We are all under so much pressure these days that we are living in a state of heightened anxiety. Being at 75% stressed all the time means that a seemingly insignificant incident can send you to 100% and trigger a full on panic response. I actually had to turn off the Tom Hanks film “Captain Phillips” because the tension in it was so unbearable that I was having consecutive panic attacks. Wild.

Instinctively I felt like I was coiled too tightly and I needed to unravel myself slowly so that I didn’t just explode. I found some breathing techniques online that stopped me from hyperventilating and therefore prevented the panic attack from escalating.

The doctor’s advice was very sensible

  • Eat more (Oh yes, he really said that. BOOM! To be fair he didn’t mean cake or massive KitKats, he meant more of the right things. Coffee is not breakfast and toast is not lunch, especially not if you then run 5 miles with the dog)
  • Spend time doing things that you enjoy (Pardon? Things that I enjoy….My mind went blank. I am a parent therefore I have no hobbies. My hobby is facilitating the hobbies of my children and husband. This would have to change).
  • Get your husband to do more to help (he has been brilliant – although now that he has chopped half his arm off* in a machine at work he is not being as helpful)
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine (what! Seriously though drinking made me feel absolutely terrible so it wasn’t hard to do this)

I did all of this and more and it has all helped a lot. A few people have asked for more details so I’ll do a separate post about it. I feel almost normal again. I still don’t quite have the energy to run – but I will do eventually. I am not rushing anything. Blood tests showed very low Vitamin D (“No promises but people with such low levels often find that these supplements make them feel a lot better,” said the doctor who prescribed me 2 months worth of  sunshine – in tablet form unfortunately).

If I am totally honest about it all there is a part of me that feels like I failed and I was nervous about sharing my failure, but I keep telling that voice to be quiet. It is the voice of insecurity. The voice of reason tells me that the only thing I failed at was being kinder to myself and I won’t make that mistake again.

*by half his arm I really mean the tip of his index finger. He shrugged it off as nothing on the phone until I deduced that he was in an ambulance and needed surgery. I met him at A&E where he was cracking jokes about needing to pick his nose with a different finger. I pointed out that his nostrils could take it.
 norms finger





Author: Bernadette Ballantyne

Freelance journalist and former engineer writing for business magazines and blogging about working parent issues

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