'Don't Panic!' The effect of panic attacks and health anxiety on this writer's life by Rosalie Warren

‘Don’t panic!’ Corporal Jones on Dad’s Army used to yell at Captain Mainwaring and the rest. I’ve been saying this to myself rather a lot recently, with about as much success as Jonesy had.

At the end of January this year, on a visit to my daughter in lovely Vancouver, I had to call on the emergency services to take me to hospital, following the onset of some worrying symptoms I feared might mean a heart attack. The paramedics and medics were wonderful, and thankfully my test results showed no heart attack – in fact it was unclear what had happened to me. I was sent home in the early hours, pretty much back to normal; a little shaken but hoping that would be the end of it. I went on to have a great holiday and flew home ten days later.

I was eventually billed over £800 for my emergency callout and examination, and although money is the least of your worries in such circumstances, this was rather a lot and I put in a claim with my insurance company. The subsequent battle I had with them is a story of its own, which I’ll refrain from telling here (eventual result: after months of stressful back-and-forth they finally paid up, minus a hefty excess charge, last week). All this has made me more appreciative than ever of our own beleaguered but still wonderful NHS.

Unfortunately, the symptoms recurred at intervals once I was home and I had a couple more trips to A&E in the following weeks, followed by a whole gamut of tests and monitoring. The good news is that they have still found nothing wrong. I’m now on several types of medication, partly to calm me down, and am suffering some uncomfortable side effects, but the symptoms have largely subsided (touch wood).

Yes, touch wood… I’m not normally a superstitious person but I’ve almost become one in my quest to work out what exactly has been prompting my ‘episodes’. Certain combinations of foods, certain clothes, sitting positions, even certain times of day now set me off worrying I’ll have another one. Sounds silly – sounds very silly. I’m not proud of myself, but it’s true. I’ve also become hyper-sensitive to the slightest sign of discomfort in any part of my body, worrying about what terrible condition or disease it might signify. Classic hypochondria – or ‘heath anxiety’ as it is now called. And no, I haven’t been Googling my symptoms – I’ve got more sense than that. But it turns out that my imagination, in cahoots with the scraps of medical knowledge I’ve picked up along the way, is more than enough to persuade me to fear the worst.

The panic that grips me when these fears get going is almost beyond my powers of description. It’s like a physical pain in its intensity and its refusal to submit to reason. Your body (or in this case, brain) grabs the steering wheel without consulting you, like when you go into labour. Apparently the amygdala, the brain’s emotional centre and chief panic station, does not receive much information from the reasoning, rational frontal cortex – most of the connections run the other way. This explains why I can’t talk myself out of panic, but it doesn’t really help to control it. And, of course, panic makes your heart beat faster, and if it’s your heart you’re worried about…

I’ve had what I now realise were relatively mild panic attacks before now, at times in my life when I’ve been under stress. And back when I was eleven, I went through a phase of worrying about my health – each new disease I read about, I was convinced I’d got it. My research was mostly in my grandmother’s Woman’s Realm – the problem pages and Ask the Doctor. I was actually trying to find out about sex – it was virtually the only way you could, in the Dark Ages. I remember my fears back then had elements of panic, not entirely unlike what I’m going through today. No one in those days had a clue what to do with kids who were worriers, so I didn’t get any help. I was told constantly as a child to stop worrying, and can remember at a very young age protesting that I didn’t have a ‘worry switch’. I still don’t, and I’m not sure many people do. But there are techniques and strategies that help and I’m beginning to learn what works for me.

Getting out of the house if I possibly can and going for a walk usually helps. It takes a while to calm down, but it happens eventually. This is hard to do, however, as my natural inclination is to stay indoors, somewhere ‘safe’, when worry strikes. TV can sometimes help too. I don’t normally watch a lot of it, but I’ve made some discoveries. The Big Bang Theory is effective for some reason, as is Homes Under the Hammer. I will never despise daytime TV again! Reading can also help, though not always. Old favourites like P. G. Wodehouse and Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole books can sometimes divert my brain from its panicky pathways. Music, relaxation techniques and the like do not seem to help me much – they leave my mind too free to construct frightening scenarios.

Since all this began, my writing has suffered to the point of drying up. The well of ideas that normally sits (festers?) below the level of my consciousness seems dry. Or inaccessible, or perhaps filled with the wrong stuff, with worries about my heath rather than the doings of my characters. I miss their company terribly. It’s made me realise that this is the true value of writing for me. I don’t care, at the moment anyway, if I never publish anything or even finish anything again. I just want to be able to look inside and see my characters getting on with things, and to be able to listen in and write it down.

I’m doing my best to get through this, but it’s a bit of a struggle. Also, it’s not easy to admit to, on a page that may be read by lots of people I don’t know. I decided to share my experience in the interest of making mental health issues more widely known and helping to remove the ridiculous stigma that has been attached to them for so long. If this helps anyone at all, I’ll be very glad, but mainly it’s an exercise in being honest and open about my mental state.

That’s all for now. Take care, everyone.
Best wishes,

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JO said…
I do hope our wonderful NHS is offering you help. This is treatable - not just with medication, but also to help you find ways to manage it. And it is simply a bit of your body that isn't working so well at the moment, just as I have Dupyetens (a finger thinyg). Good for you, putting your head above the parapet to talk about it.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Sorry to hear you are having such a tough time. Well done for having the courage to talk about it in public. We are all cheering you on
Bill Kirton said…
Sounds awful, Ros, and the feelings of uncertainty and not knowing where it's all coming from must be a constant anxiety. I'm sure we all hope that you'll find a way out of it or at least a way of containing it. As Jo and Wendy have said, it was a brave blog to write. Let's hope your characters respond to it and start demanding your attention again very soon.
Lydia Bennet said…
This may sound over simplistic, but the horrible sensations that go with a panic attack are due to over-breathing, it's actually too much oxygen - when you get stressed, without realising it you start breathing faster. The solution is to have a paper bag (like the ones sainsbugs puts out for mushrooms for example) with you and you just breathe in and out into the bag, so you are rebreathing the same air, for a few minutes, and this will re-balance the O2/CO2 in your system. Another thing is if you train yourself to be aware your breathing is speeding up, when you start to feel one coming on, breathe in for a count of 4, breathe out for the count of 8 and so on. Good luck with it. Most agoraphobia and other phobias are actually fear of panic attacks asssociated with a particular stimulus.
I have had panic attacks and they are truly awful and indescribable so I do so sympathise. A few years ago, I did a course in Buteyko Breathing for my asthma - a very good technique that I can recommend - still use it from time to time when I have the occasional flare-up. (Think there are videos of it on YouTube now.) And it can also be used for panic attacks. Essentially, like the paperbag technique, it's a way of rebalancing the 02/CO2. It consists of a series of quite formal breathing exercises, deliberately breathing out and making your breathing shallow rather than the deep breathing generally recommended! Nobody knows you're doing it, even in public! I still use it in situations where I can feel myself getting agitated. I'm not a particularly good flyer, for instance, but it definitely helps. Thanks for writing this blog. It always helps to know that you are not alone, I think.
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you all for your kind and supportive comments and your helpful suggestions. I did have some doubts about writing this but am glad I did so now.
Debbie Bennett said…
I can so sympathise, having been in a similar place myself on occasion. Have you tried counselling? I've found sometimes it works (amazingly well) and other times it's pointless - I think it's a matter of connecting with the right person. Even just talking about it to somebody unconnected, who doesn't know you and has no agenda can be helpful. Hugs xx
Enid Richemont said…
This is such a brave and honest post. The mind can sabotage its owner in horrendous ways - my closest friend has a daughter, now in her mid-thirties - who suffers from schizophrenia. Medication helps, but she can't tolerate it, so she goes through repeated periods of terrifying illusions/voices, and then medicates back into a normality she can't tolerate either. The more research into how the brain works, the better, and I hope it comes sooner rather than later for people I care about.
Big hugs to you, Rosalie.
Lynne Garner said…
Ros I sympathise and hope things improve soon.

Although I've not had panic attacks there have been times when life has been extremely stressful. I found natural ways to deal with the stress. One was eating lots of oat based food. Oats (soy, poultry and sesame seeds) contain tryptophan, which is known to be very effective at reducing anxiety.

Also research into Omega 3's suggests there is some evidence that it is important for depression and anxiety. Omega-3's can be found in fish, flax seed, and winter squash. As a veggie I take my Omega 3 in tablet form made from seaweed.

You never know these along with other changes in your diet may help.
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you so much, everyone, for all the wonderful supportive comments, practical suggestions, hugs and good wishes. I really appreciate them all.

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