It is July, six months since I started to feel unwell with a git of a respiratory virus, panic attacks and chronic fatigue. The good news is that today I feel 90% better and having shared my experience I am very grateful to all of the lovely people that have been in touch to tell me that they have had similar issues. Some of you have managed it into submission, others are still struggling and for those in the second category I decided to write down some of the things that I’ve done that have helped – starting with talking about it.
Don’t suffer in silence! Almost everyone that I’ve talked to about this has felt better once they realised what it was. And to do that you have to talk about it. Panic attacks have less power once we know what they are. Recognising that it is a stress response, that you are not about to die, and that there are things that you can do to beat the anxiety, will give you more confidence, and that will help you deal with it. But unfortunately that won’t be enough in the long run. It takes a long time to undo the damage, uncoil the spring and unlearn the responses that have led to these reactions.
For me there were two things I needed to do. First was deal with the short term issues like the panic attacks. Second was the long term stuff – making sure that I made changes so that I didn’t end up back at square one as soon as I started feeling “normal” again.
BREATHING – Breathing through the panic attacks was the only way I could stop them. I think its called circular breathing. When the panic started I’d breathe in for 5, hold my breath for 5, then slowly exhale (for at least 5). Doing this for maybe 10 breaths would be enough to stop an attack. Simple but effective. The doctor said a paper bag also does the trick because you are reversing the effects of hyperventilating by inhaling the carbon dioxide. I preferred the circular breaths.
REST – I reduced my workload massively and spent A LOT of time on the sofa. I didn’t do anything physical at all. My lovely friend (you know who you are and you were brilliant) walked my dog for me and my family helped with the kids. My husband stepped up a gear admitting that he had just left me to do everything – because I never asked him to help. A partnership of one is not very effective. Only after a couple of weeks of resting properly and demanding more from my husband, did I start to feel like I could breathe normally. The boa constrictor that had wound itself around my chest had stopped squeezing. I was not going to be eaten by a snake.
NUTRITION – I drank lots of water and swapped the caffeine and sugar that had habitually powered me through the day (until dinner), for a diet full of meat, veg, fruit, and dairy products. I ate every couple of hours. My brother got me a brilliant recipe book “The Power of Three” by Dale Pinnock and I really recommend it. Eating like this just felt right. My body knew what it needed*.
This was more tricky. I was offered a beta blocker called propranalol to help deal with stress, but I decided not to take it. I instinctively felt that the cause of the issues was having too much on my plate. I felt like I needed to unwind myself. If I could unpick the stitches that had drawn me in too tightly then surely the pressure would ease and I would start to feel better? This turned out to be true. But one of the reasons that I could “unwind” was that I work for myself so I was able to reduce my workload and only work from home for a few weeks. I appreciate that for some people this isn’t the case and more immediate treatment such as propranalol is invaluable in order to regain normal function. Everyone is different.
Blood tests also showed that I had severely low Vitamin D.
“I don’t want to get your hopes up but a lot of people with very low levels of Vitamin D feel a lot better when they take supplements. I am giving you a big dose,” said the doctor.
“So what you are really saying is that I need to go abroad and lie in the sun for a month,” I said. “Can you give me a prescription for that?”
“Sunshine would certainly help,” she said.
I became more organised. Living in a state of chaos makes all of this worse. We (instead of I) write meal plans, create lists of things that we need for the week, we plan ahead. Lots of people do this already but for me it is new ground.
I stopped running. Because I was doing it to go faster, and further and to push myself and because the dog needed walking so I was multi-tasking. But I wasn’t getting any better at it, which is not surprising really. I had nothing to put into it. I was quite literally running on empty. So I’ve started trying to build myself up slowly. At first, after about two months of doing absolutely nothing, I went to pilates and walked a bit. The first time I went to a class all my muscles were shaking and I couldn’t do it all. A year ago I had found it too easy and decided that it was boring. Now I appreciate that it is building my strength up slowly from the inside out. I am grateful that I can do it. I go once a week. Then I started doing a few weights, once or twice a week. And more recently I’ve reintroduced a bit or run/walking, but only when it is sunny and I feel full of energy.
I nap. I work from home so I am lucky enough that if I am struggling then I can take an hour and sleep. It helps a lot.
And finally I was advised by the doctor to spend time doing things that I enjoy. Oddly this one has been perhaps the most difficult to achieve. The past 7 years have mainly been about obligation and necessity. Looking after the kids and working took up all of my time. Like many (most?) parents I had forgotten what I enjoy. My hobby was facilitating the hobbies of my family. And even the rare social events that I was invited to felt like another stressful obligation. I’m still working on this one but I started small – picking TV box sets that I liked and books that I enjoyed. This week I’m trying out a new martial arts class which was a hobby I enjoyed 10 years ago and tonight we are going to a party.
Thanks to all of this I feel sure that the last 10% recovery will, eventually come. After a few good days I feel 95% better but after a few days of overdoing it I can quickly slide back to 50%. The moral of this story is that if you don’t look after yourself, you won’t be able to look after those that you love. And those that you love should look after you too. So look at your routines. Do you really need to do everything? Put down the washing, stop thinking about work, tell the kids that the word “Mum” is banned for half an hour, and do something less boring instead. And finally don’t suffer in silence. Talk to your friends and family. It makes it better.
*My body will always need cake too. I would never advocate giving that up. Life is too short.