The reality of panic attacks and how to cope

Emily Payne
Yahoo Lifestyle
16 November 2012

Just days after entering the I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here! jungle, actress Helen Flanagan threatened to quit, citing panic attacks and anxiety.

The 22 year-old said: “I am trying to work out what triggers them so I can start to deal with them and move forward.”

Figures show that around 300 people out of 1,000 will experience mental health problems every year in Britain; 230 of these will visit a GP and 102 of these will be diagnosed as having a mental health problem.

A spokesperson for Time to Change, England's biggest mental health anti-stigma programme, run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, said: "It's time to start talking about all types of mental health problems to make the subject something that people are less afraid of.”

[Related: Helen Flanagan comes face to face with yet more of her fears in the I'm A Celeb jungle]

Here, three women share their experiences with Yahoo! Lifestyle UK...

“What if I fall asleep and my heart stops beating?”
“I remember lying in a dark room, starting to feel sick and light-headed and thinking this is it, the kids are going to wake up in the morning and I'm going to be stone cold. I really believed that.”

For mum-of-three Helene Gibbins, 31, panic attacks began during a difficult divorce. “Imagine putting a belt around your chest and pulling it really tight. It feels like you can't breathe in enough. You desperately try and breath out really far so you can get more air in,” she explains.

“My entire world had collapsed. I had to move out of my marital home with three kids and had no idea what the future held.

“I felt nervy and would have heart palpitations. Sometimes I would think, hang on a minute, has my heart actually stopped beating? It was all I could focus on. I kept checking my pulse: Fingers on my neck, fingers on my wrist. I thought I would die. 

“My GP said it was classic panic attacks. I was put on prozac, but I didn't get on with that, and when I went back to the doctors they said I shouldn't have been on it in the first place. They offered me counselling sessions, but I'd leave feeling really s***. The counsellor told me I was one of the most insecure people she had dealt with. It really put me off.

“My dad was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and has an increased chance of stroke so I told the doctor about it, and that I was having symptoms. When you are convinced you are dying, it's hard to believe it is just a panic attack. But the doctor made me feel stupid and that I was wasting his time.

“You think of panic attacks as someone hyperventilating, but it's not like that for me. There isn't a one size fits all panic attack. I don't know what I look like outwardly but inside it's all going off.

“With anything to with depression or stress, if you own up to it you're basically saying 'I can't cope with my life'. It's hard to admit to that.”

“Every day is a battle to keep going”
Alice, 16, from Sevenoaks, was on a busy train when she started to feel dizzy. “I thought I was going to be sick or pass out. I couldn't move because the train was so full. It really scared me”.

The teenager, who suffers from mild autism explains: “The triggers are countless: Public transport, people I don't know, being in an enclosed space, being somewhere I can't immediately leave, sitting in the middle of rows as opposed to the end, things that aren't pre-planned.

“Every day is a battle to keep going. I have to get lifts everywhere and I can rarely see my friends. I find it difficult to eat, because of the nausea associated with my anxiety. School is difficult and  anxiety has hugely affected my education.

“I talk to my friends and family but I worry I'm too needy and that they'll leave me. My parents are quite helpful but they're divorced and I have two disabled brothers, so they don't have much time for me.

“I was referred to the child and adolescent mental health service but they've had huge cuts and only have three or four mental health professionals for the whole of Kent. I have to wait about a year or more for CBT, and they didn't want to put me on drugs because of the cost. I can't afford private therapy so I can't really do anything. But I'm trying!”

“It started with a twitch in my arm and suddenly I thought I was dying”
“I was rushed to the doctors after a night of panic,” says Amy, a 30-year-old charity worker. “I thought I was going mad.”

“I was under a lot of pressure at work. I had such high expectations and became really self-critical and it was taking over my life. Then my uncle – who I was really close to - passed away unexpectedly. I had my first panic attack on the day of his funeral.

“For me, it starts with a twitch in my arm, and then this intense, overtaking feeling. I feel hot, like I am rushing and I get tunnel vision, light-headedness and vertigo. It's that fight or flight feeling, you're full of adrenalin, feeling like you have to get out of the situation. I would be rocking, feeling like I'd gone mad, my whole body just needed to move.

“When I went to the doctor it scared me how easy it was to get strong medication. It took self-discipline to say no, this isn't how I want to get through this. The one thing that helped me was talking to people and  knowing other people have them. It's good to know that you're not alone.”

How to cope with panic attacks
Lindsey Arnold, certified Life Coach and founder of Liv' N Freedom Life Coaching, suffered debilitating panic attacks for years. She now helps people try overcome them to regain control. Here are her tips:

1.    Admit to yourself you are having a panic attack and take it seriously.
2.   Intentionally choose to get your mind on something else. Mental focus is huge as you can only think on one thing at a time.
3.    If you are with someone you trust, ask them to hold your hand or touch their shoulder. Light physical contact can bring back a level of reality.
4.    Repeat over in your mind that "this will pass." Even though it feels as if you might die or that you are "losing your mind," a panic attack by itself will not kill you.
5.    Plan to seek help from a professional (I would strongly suggest you find a professional who has dealt with panic attacks themselves).You are not crazy and medication is not the long-term solution.
6.    Facing up to it is hard, but it's worth it as you will regain control. Exposing it is the first step towards overcoming panic attacks.

For more tips, whether you have a mental health problem or if you know someone who is going though a difficult time, please visit

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