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Five things I wish I'd known before I had my first panic attack

Simon Butterfield July 3, 2020

At the age of 30, out of the blue, I suffered my first panic attack, and it was absolutely terrifying.

Naturally I’d come across the term ‘panic attack’ before and had even heard friends describe them, but nothing could prepare me for the reality of it.

It remains without a doubt the scariest experience of my life, and I say that as someone who has been caught in a storm on Mount Kilimanjaro and been on a string of (universally awkward) blind dates set up by well-meaning friends.

So, I thought it would be a good idea to compile a list of things I wish I had known before I had my panic attack because forewarned is forearmed.

1. You aren’t going to die

The reason that panic attacks and so damn scary is that your brain is basically yelling at you repeatedly that you are having a heart attack.

Even though the rational side of your brain can even recognise that it is probably an anxiety episode, it’s very hard to accept that what feels just like a heart attack is not in any way a heart attack.

The onset of a panic attack usually comes with pins and needles, shaking in your limbs, feeling hot and sweaty and a feeling that you are unable to breath.

But, however that feels. You are not going to die. You will be fine and you won’t even need to go to hospital.

2. You don’t need to be a zen master

There is nothing less useful for relaxing than someone telling you to relax. Especially when you feel like you’re having a heart attack.

Controlling your breathing will make a panic attack pass off faster and in time you can learn to nip them in the bud if you can recognise their onset.

However, it is comforting to know that it will go away whatever you do. It will simply run its course.

So don’t add to your worries by feeling like you’re failing some kind of yogic breathing exercise. Just try and let the experience wash over you.

3. This won’t change your life

A first panic attack leaves you understandably wondering whether this will recur and take over your life.

Some people just have one in their whole life, usually at a time of unusual stress, some have a few in a period and never again; others have attacks semi-regularly but learn to manage them.

Whichever way, while it may feel like the world is ending when you are in the midsts of an attack, it will not define you. It won’t stop you doing the things you love.

4. You are not alone

It is estimated that around five percent of people will experience panic disorder at some time in their lives.

A lot of people you know will have experienced something similar and quite likely they haven’t talked about it.

Having a panic attack does not make you strange or damaged or weak, it can happen to literally anyone. When you start telling people what happened you will find more people than you expect have been through the same thing at some stage.

5. There are people you can talk to

The NHS has resources for anyone suffering from anxiety and panic attacks.

It is a good idea to talk to your GP and they can recommend possible routes to help deal with your attacks, such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

There are also panic hotlines that you can call as soon as you feel an attack coming on, such as No Panic.

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