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'I thought my body was shutting down.' 6 women on the reality of living with anxiety attacks.

Chest pains, dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating.

If you’ve ever suffered a panic attack, you will know these symptoms well. There is often a quick onset of sheer terror that accompanies them, that in the worst possible cases, feels like you’re about to die.

Up to 40 per cent of Australians will suffer from a panic attack at some point in their lives, and women are more likely to be affected than men.

Here’s how to help someone with anxiety. Post continues below. 

For some, a panic attack can be a complete one off. But for those less fortunate, they can plague their lives.

Here, six women share with Mamamia their experience of living with panic attacks.

Pamela

While I’ve suffered with anxiety and depression for most of my adult life, I didn’t have my first panic attack until I was 33. It wasn’t triggered by anything tangible. I was having coffee with a friend when suddenly my heart started hammering and I felt this incredible sense of impending doom for absolutely no reason. I slid off my chair on to the ground, sweat dripping down my body. My poor friend had no idea what was going on – and nor did I!

It was only later when I was feeling better that I saw the doctor who told me it was likely a panic attack. Since then, I’ve suffered what I call “mini attacks”. None have been quite as bad as that first one, but most days are spent feeling like I’m on the verge of it happening again. My heart will suddenly start beating like mad or I will feel like the room is spinning around me. I am keen to get into therapy (which is something I have been putting off for far too long) and to learn some effective coping techniques as I don’t want to live my life scared.

Lauren

I was ‘officially diagnosed’ with an anxiety disorder when I was 14, but I’ve had symptoms of anxiety and worry for as long as I can remember.

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My first memories of having a panic attack were when I had my first boyfriend at 14. It was most likely a small fight that set it off, but I remember my vision going blurry, sounds becoming muffled and my face getting really hot. It felt as though someone had put a fishbowl over my head and was restricting my oxygen flow. I felt a massive build up, like I needed to scream or run away – but I couldn’t do either. I burst into tears uncontrollably and pretty much collapsed to the floor. Once I finally picked myself up and managed to compose myself, I felt drained and confused. All I wanted to do was crawl up in a ball and go to sleep.

I’m now 25 and have lost count of the amount of times I’ve had to politely excuse myself from a social situation, my work desk or pull over on the side of the road while I’m driving to simply let a panic attack run its course. Fortunately, I now have various coping mechanisms in place to reduce their frequency and impact, but when a panic attack comes on unexpectedly, I feel like that little 14-year-old girl again, scared and frightened of this emotion she’s having that no one understands.

Monica

Panic attacks for me coincided with some major life changes. I never had one right up to the age of 29. This was the time when I moved to Australia. The move itself was a bit of a gamble, and in hindsight I was not well prepared for it. The stress of it all, suddenly being without family and friends, restarting life from scratch and facing financial hardship all at once took its toll on me. That’s when it all started. Whenever I got a panic attack my chest started to tighten and slowly my limbs would go numb. It was like my body was shutting down.

Initially I thought I had a cardiac issue, but several trips to the doctor ruled that out. It took me a while to understand what was going on. I have now had them for several years and with each passing year I seem to be getting better at handling them. They don’t scare me like they used to. I used to feel like I was dying but now I understand it will pass. Maybe because it all started with big changes in my life I have become somewhat change-averse. Any change in my life can trigger panic attacks. Even the simple ones like moving, travel etc can trigger it. However, over the years I have become better equipped to deal with it, so it does not derail my life completely like it used to.

LISTEN: Mia Freedman talks to Dr. Jodie Lowinger about anxiety. Post continues below…

Lem

I started having panic attacks around a year ago. I’ve known that I have clinically diagnosed anxiety for over four years now but having left the motherf*cker to brew inside me for so long, it was bound to explode and take full effect.

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Even though I have a BA in Psychology, I didn’t want to admit to myself that what I was experiencing is the so-called “panic attack” I was once so fascinated with. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dry mouth, an overwhelming sense of doom and sometimes suicidal thoughts even. Still, I was like: “I’m just having a moment”.

I know that the escalation has been triggered by the roller coaster of me coming out to my family, moving to Australia, moving in with my girlfriend, and then meeting her whole family. It was at its worse when we all went to the snow. Seventeen people I’ve never met before and I’m the only Arab just sitting there. I also started developing a phobia of crowds. I couldn’t go to concerts and not feel like the world is closing in on me and that was definitely a foreign feeling for me. Routine, therapy and meditation are helping loads. I think what happened with me is that I went through so many changes and had no time to process anything. I now make it a point to meditate 20 minutes a day on the train using a lifesaving app called Headspace.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel horrendous sometimes at work or at home (and I hide it very well) but I now have tools to help me recognise what’s happening and try and shift away from it taking full effect.”

Anna

My panic attacks started in 2017, and they were directly linked the stress I felt at work. My job itself wasn’t stressful but the environment was. My first panic attack was in a Target and I had no idea what was happening. It felt similar to a migraine setting in where you’re just confused and unsure why you were fine one minute and nauseous, dizzy, and losing your vision the next.

I was by myself and I simply stopped what I was doing, walked out of the store, out of the shopping mall and went and sat down outside. I just sat on the ground against the wall of Westfield and tried to calm myself down. This took about 20 minutes from start to finish and was incredibly uncomfortable.

These attacks continued for months but an unfortunate pattern started to occur. I would get panic attacks on the bus to work. Just knowing I was travelling to work was enough to occasionally trigger an attack and travelling across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, unable to get off the bus and feeling very aware of that fact, made it harder.

I would have an attack quietly on the bus almost once a fortnight for months. The symptoms would mostly be incredibly bad nausea. I was seeing a psychologist at the time who advised I leave that job as soon as possible, but I have to pay rent and unfortunately leaving without another role to go to immediately wasn’t an option for me. This was an added stress as I now felt trapped travelling to a place I hated every day, struggling and exhausted by the job hunt and unable to just walk away.

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When I did finally move on and found another job, the attacks stayed. They decreased and the severity reduced but even now I still will always feel a chill up my spine stepping onto a train or bus. I live in Sydney and I don’t drive, so this is something I deal with pretty much everyday. For weeks I will be fine and experience no attacks, but then for some reason it will just strike and even after trying to calm myself down and continuing my commute I’ll find myself getting off the train at Town Hall after only getting on at Central just to get my breath back.

Music and distractions help when it’s a small feeling but the best advice I received was that panic attacks are like waves, you just have to ride the worst bits and then it’ll begin to fade.

It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be

Jenna

I’ve had anxiety for almost as long as I can remember. I saw my first psychologist when I was five years old. But I don’t think I had my first panic attack until I was in high school – in fact, there were lots of those in high school.

Most days were okay, it would just be the days where we had a special event or an excursion that would get me feeling the most anxious. I seem to get panicky when I know I’m stuck somewhere and can’t leave or need to behave in a certain way. When I first start feeling panicky I get this warm feeling in my body, which I now know to be the adrenaline that’s pumping through me. My heart rate speeds up, I get sweaty, clammy hands and my breathing quickens. It’s honestly the fight or flight mode in full effect – I just feel like I need to leave whatever situation I’m in immediately and move somewhere ‘less stressful’.

But I don’t let the thought of having a panic attack stop me from doing things. I went to Europe in Year 11 with my school mates, I went on a Contiki to Vietnam two years ago and I live every day as freely as I possibly can. Granted, I’ve had some pretty bad panic attacks while overseas, including a full-blown one on the coach in Italy in front of everyone I was with. But I’d say my last bad panic attack was a few years ago. I find if I don’t think about it, it’s less likely to happen. And you know what – I’m still here…panic attacks ain’t stopping this gal from living her life!

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

*Some names have been changed. The images used are stock images. 

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