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What Happened After My First Panic Attack

The below is an extract from British author and journalist Eleanor Morgan's new book, Anxiety for Beginners. Part investigation, part memoir, it's a look at the UK's rising level of diagnoses for people suffering with anxiety. Morgan offers first-hand advice on how to beat panic attacks, anxiety disorders and the stigma attached to both.
I’ve negotiated an anxiety disorder for my entire adult life. Twice, it got so bad I had what I can only refer to as breakdowns, even though we’re encouraged not to use that word these days. Depression and anxiety share many of the same symptoms, but during those two periods of my life I was trapped by a new, 1000-volt level of anxiety with a thick duvet of helplessness on top. These were times defined less by sadness and more by living in fear of the next minute, and what physical symptoms it would bring.

Am I losing my mind? Should I call an ambulance? Could I take a load of sleeping pills that would make me sleep for days but not kill me? Am I going to have to go onto a psychiatric ward?

These were the kinds of questions I asked myself in the past when stuck in a cyclone of negative thought, my ability for rationality sweating out through my warm spots.

While staring at pictures of myself as a child, or even as a teenager, before the whole nearly dying thing, I’ve asked out loud, ‘Where did she go?’ It’s like there are two versions of me – Version 1.0: Pre-Anxious and Version 2.0: Anxious.

I miss Version 1.0 like a limb.

After my first panic attack in the science block toilets at school, I thought about nothing else for the next fortnight. It happened again a few times and, each time, the fear of it happening again cranked up a gear until the fear became a slow, steady hum. An actual hum, too, right at the back of the neck. At night I’d cry, wondering what the hell was going on inside me, but telling my parents or friends was out of the question. The idea of actually talking about it made it seem more real. I became convinced it was a physical problem, anyway – something related to my damaged insides (my appendix had just burst). For obvious reasons, this was scary to think about.

Three weeks of misery slowly passed and, after experiencing one totally sleepless, sweaty night, I turned up at the GP surgery on my own at 8.30 in the morning. I pleaded with the receptionist to let me see someone, not really knowing what I was seeking help for. Luckily, someone was available: a doctor I’d not seen before. I told him what I’d been going through and he sat back in his chair, pursing his lips.

"Based on your medical history I’m going to run some blood tests," he said, "but I think what you’re experiencing may be panic attacks."

He gave me some leaflets and referred me to a counsellor, who turned out to be an old lady working in a musty room in the community centre next to the Shell garage. She smelt of my grandma, Oil of Olay and wool.

This sweet lady’s modus operandi was saying, ‘It’ll be all right,’ and giving me a couple of elastic bands to wear on my wrists. She told me to snap them against my skin every time I felt the onset of an attack, which, for me, meant starting to feel nauseous, dizzy and full of pins and needles. She told me that there was nothing to get "stressed" about.

I don’t remember the bands alleviating the physical symptoms at all, but I knew no better and they at least made me aware of a flow of energy that needed catching. Somehow. However, despite this woman’s kindness and my GP’s commendable behaviour in referring a seventeen-year-old to a therapist rather than immediately putting her on medication, I can’t help but look back with resentment at the laid-back attitude of it all.

Still, through a combination of the distraction of preparing to leave for university in London, herbal sleeping tablets and a slightly better understanding about what panic attacks were (I had become very good friends with Ask Jeeves) and the claustrophobic loops of anxiety they cause, I did get slightly better. I realised that, with the ‘right’ things in place (avoidances) I could get through a day like anyone else. Or at least in a way that wouldn’t make my anxiety noticeable to anyone else.

Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan, published by Bluebird, price £16.99 hardback. Out now.