I remember, to the letter, exactly what I was doing when I had my first panic attack. I was putting away some clean clothes in the wardrobe when, out of nowhere, I knew something was wrong.
I started feeling faint and nauseous. I couldn’t breathe properly. My heart was beating so fast, and so hard, I thought I was going to jump out of my chest. I was so dizzy I had to sit on the bed with my head between my legs. I couldn’t think straight. I was sweating. I thought I was going to die.
It lasted for about an hour. I was rooted to the bed and couldn’t move. Gradually, the symptoms abated but it left me exhausted. I slept for 15 hours straight. It was a couple of days before I felt sort of normal again.
More than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life[i] and these figures are growing. There has been a percentage rise of 12.8% over the last 14 years of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
The anxiety attacks kept coming for several years and all the while I searched everywhere for help so I didn’t have to rely on benzodiazepines.
I was looking in all the wrong places because it seems I was trying to identify what was wrong with me physically. My life was dominated by the question; will my anxiety attacks go away? Or, is this how my life is going to be from now on?
Here’s a blog post on exactly What Happens During An Anxiety Attack
From the minute I woke up to the second I fell asleep, my mind raced over and over the same old questions like a washing machine that was switched ‘On’ 24/7.
It wasn’t until I met a coach Barbara, who understood anxiety attacks because she had suffered herself, that I began to feel any hope.
Her help started with one question:
"Why do you think you are absolutely terrified yet you know – without a shadow of a doubt - there is nothing to be afraid of?"
When The Glass Overfills
It felt as though my stress levels were high but I was still functioning. Like a glass half full of water, my levels were usually at 50%. As soon as things got out of control and negative events started to take over, the glass quickly filled up until it flowed over. An anxiety attack would then follow.
My anxiety attacks were terrifying because they would come out of the blue and I had no idea why they were occurring.
It was with Barbara that I was able to get a handle on what was going on, and why. Having someone know what it was like made a dramatic difference. The attacks slowly tailed off.
The Key Was In Practicing Radical Acceptance.
Radical acceptance stems from the Buddhist thinking that says we must resist nothing in order to be happy. In psychological terms, radical acceptance can help us to no longer resist our feelings of loss, fear or grief. Instead we accept our pain with the gentleness of a mother holding her baby, with compassion and clarity.
For me this approach went against all my instincts but I was willing to give anything a try. The hardest bit was the compassion. I’d spent my whole life beating myself up.
I had to radically accept:
That I was going through a panic attack
These were just feelings
And they weren’t going to kill me
That they would pass eventually
That I had no control over the anxiety attack
And I couldn’t stop it when it started
That the anxiety attack would come to an end
That I would feel normal again
Once I’d been through a few anxiety attacks, practicing this radical acceptance, my confidence slowly grew. I came to realize I would survive. The time in between each attack grew longer even though I went back to the same places that triggered each attack.
Will My Anxiety Attacks Go Away? Yes, But Only If They Are Treated Properly
I’ve heard people say that anxiety attacks can return any time even if you’ve been free of them for years. This isn’t fully explained. Anxiety attacks will return if they are not treated thoroughly and successfully in the first place.
I thought, for a long time, that I was better because I could go back to places that used to trigger an attack. However, after a long time without suffering any severe anxiety, the attacks started up again and I was incredibly depressed, staying at home as much as possible. However, these places were part of my job and I had to go there to work.
I look back and I can see that it wasn’t the places I was afraid of; it was the thought of having an anxiety attack that haunted me.
Anxiety attacks are maintained by our fear of them. Even when the cause of the anxiety attack has passed (or our glass has overflowed with water), our fear of it happening again keeps the levels high. Now we’re in the loop of fear of an attack keeping our stress levels high and tipping into an anxiety attack.
But, here’s the thing: once I’d experienced 9 anxiety attacks in the same place, I realised I wasn’t going to have a heart attack, lose control or die.
The attacks diminished, then became brief until they finally disappeared. And not just in that work venue but everywhere. I gradually lost the fear.
Understanding where and how an attack comes on helps to demystify it and provides a route to managing it. Anxiety attacks are usually a DELAYED response to a period of severe stress, life changes or life losses. They often begin some time, maybe months, after the worrying period, just when we thought we had put it all behind us.
How To Practice Radical Acceptance Before & During An Anxiety Attack
There are several things you can do to help yourself before the onset of an anxiety attack – when you’re in a strong place and a safe space:
Make a list of all the anxiety attacks you remember; write a paragraph about how you felt, what happened during and what happened after
Write a letter to your panicky self about what life is like after an attack, how you recovered and how life went back to normal. Always carry this letter with you.
Make a decision to look thoroughly at your general stress levels and promise yourself you will take steps to uncover why they are so high
There are several things you can do to help yourself during the onset of an anxiety attack:
As you sense an anxiety attack is coming, remind yourself these are emotions that will pass, just like they have every other time. I had a mantra which was: These feelings will pass by like clouds in the sky
Find a space where you can be as safe as possible
Take out your letter and re-read it to yourself
As you regain confidence in yourself, knowing you can handle the anxiety attacks, affirm yourself with messages like:
You’re doing so well handling these attacks
You have more resilience than you ever realised
They will not last forever
Yes But Will My Anxiety Attacks Go Away For Good? They Did For Me
The truth is, no one can answer that question. If I could offer one tip it’s to try practicing radical acceptance of the fact that you suffer from them. That’s what made my anxiety attacks go away.
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[i] Ehlers, A. ‘Anxiety disorders: Challenging negative thinking.’ Quoted in the Wellcome Trust Reveiws, 1997.