Panic attacks became an all too regular part of my life, but the underlying cause was a lack of confidence.

writes Claire Byrne

WINDOW OF HOPE: Claire Byrne has been attending counselling and cannot recommend it enough

‘As painful and terrifying as they were, I felt better after a panic attack, and I always had an excuse’

Your chest goes tight, your heart starts to pound, the room is spinning and no matter how hard you try you cannot catch a breath.

You could be on the dance floor or in the dairy aisle, at your desk or in your bed. And when it happens for the first time, you think you’re about to die.

For over two years, my life was littered with all-too-frequent panic attacks.

I missed friends’ birthdays, bailed on nights out, wasted concert tickets and abandoned work events.

Sometimes it even made family dinners a massive undertaking and leaving the house a genuine struggle.

Panic attacks, or anxiety attacks, are thought to affect at least one-in-10 Irish people at some stage in their lives. And that figure is on the rise.

In the US, 18pc of adults suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder. While the attacks are almost twice as likely to affect women, they can happen to any one, of any age, at any time.

They are triggered in different ways; for some people it’s depression; others, it’s stress. Many people who suffer from anxiety link it to phobias, post-traumatic stress or OCD. One of the biggest triggers of panic attacks, however, is social anxiety.

According to Social Anxiety Ireland, 13.7pc of Irish adults suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. In the US, it’s the third most prevalent mental health disorder after alcoholism and depression.

Social situations were certainly the trigger of my panic attacks, though the overlying cause was probably my own confidence.

I’ll never forget the first time I had one.

I was going to a gig, but for some reason despite really wanting to go, I felt uneasy and rushed getting ready. I was picking fights with my boyfriend out of nowhere.

We were half-way to the gig when, all of a sudden, I was bent over the James Joyce bridge trying to get sick.

I hadn’t been drinking, but I couldn’t catch a breath, tears were streaming down my face and I didn’t know what was wrong.

The episode probably lasted less than a minute. I was incredibly freaked out, but I was also relieved. It was as if I’d released pent-up anxiety; I guess I had.

It started sporadically, little attacks here and there. I put it down to some kind of jitters.

But then they started to become more regular and to impact on my day-to-day life.

While there was no distinct pattern, it almost always happened when I was getting ready, or ahead of a night out.

I’m an incredibly social person and, as a journalist, I talk to people for a living, I adore my friends and my family are fantastic. But I would compulsively fixate on what people thought of me; how I looked, what I was wearing, my skin, my hair, my weight.

It was a voice in my head telling me people thought I was fat, ugly or not good enough – but really it was me who thought all those things.

I still feel guilty over the events I missed, but often, even if I managed to get myself out the door, it could take at least two hours to get there and I wouldn’t always make it through the night.

The attacks could last anywhere from five minutes to a half an hour and would leave me physically exhausted, like I’d been in a fight with myself.

One of the most frightening anxiety attacks I had was when I was at home alone. It was like choking and being unable to cough up the food. Everything was cloudy, and with no one to talk me round it just kept getting worse and worse. I was hyper-ventilating for what felt like 10 minutes and I was petrified. Not long after that I began getting constant chest pains, and I figured something had to be done.

A rather unsympathetic doctor told me I was probably depressed, and prescribed me Xanax.

These did nothing to help me and only left me feeling more out of control of myself than I already did. I lost weight, and while it offered a momentary distraction and improved my confidence, the attacks never went away.

It was only after confiding with friends and family that I realised how common anxiety really is.

There had been moments where I really felt I was losing my mind, I was unhinged, or utterly depressed. Nobody talks about it because they don’t want to be judged or they don’t know what’s going on, but now I know it’s absolutely normal.

Whether you realise it or not, you know someone – or quite a few people, actually – who’s suffered with anxiety attacks.

I was reluctant to try a counsellor. I’m an emotional person by nature and I hated the idea of self-indulgently talking about myself and having someone judge my every word.

But two years on, I cannot recommend it enough. To set aside an hour a week to just sit and talk in therapy is just that: therapeutic. It wasn’t an easy start.

The first counsellor I went to was unhelpful, rude and judgmental. It’s crucial you find someone who’s a good fit.

After a recommendation from a friend, I went along to a woman who was understanding, gentle and encouraging.

She was used to counselling drug addicts and people with depression, so I felt like my issues were trivial compared to the people she helped. But she never made me feel that way.

She taught me that my problem was with my self-worth. She said something must have happened or been said, that caused this negative, scathing, inner voice.

Gradually things started to improve and I realised, that while I’d only had the attacks for a year or two, they’d been pre-empted by anxiety since my early teens. Even going to school discos I’d had meltdowns where my mam had come in to find me crying in my room surrounded by clothes.

As I got older I would cancel nights out last minute when I didn’t feel I looked good enough to go out. Then it turned more into anger, wanting to tear clothes or punch walls out of frustration.

These were, in fact, the mild outbursts that led to my eventual anxiety.

While my attacks came from my anxiety about social situations and my body confidence, it became a coping mechanism I was almost addicted to.

I felt like I couldn’t deal with my feelings without having one. Similar to what I’ve read about binge eating and self-harming, it became a release for me.

As painful or as terrifying as they were, I felt better afterwards, and I always had an excuse for not doing things I didn’t want to do.

One thing that has eased my mind is how common anxiety is. I’ve been upfront and honest with my friends about these attacks – I had to be, after bailing on so many plans – and in doing so, I’ve realised how prevalent “panic” is.

From pre-night out jitters, to full on meltdowns, anxiety, particularly of the social sort, is more common than you think.

Some people deal with it by drinking or drug taking to cope with social situations, others withdraw themselves altogether.

I still have the occasional bout of anxiety, odd chest pains, or palpitations, but it rarely comes out in a full attack.

You’ll still find me on the floor among a pile of clothes from time to time, feeling like I’ve nothing to wear, but hey, that’s most women right?

But if I don’t want to go out, I don’t. I’ve taken the pressure off myself. I surround myself with good people who don’t value me on the size of my waist or colour of my dress.

I may always be in a constant battle to silence my inner body basher, but there’s a happy, confident and kind voice in there now, too.

For more information see ‘When Panic Attacks’ by Dr Áine Tubridy.

Irish Independent
Monday January 14 2013

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