I’m at my best friend’s house, we’ve known each other since we were in our early 20s and we’re snuggled on her sofa under a blanket like we often do, having a good old catch up and drinking G&Ts. All is good with the world. But suddenly I’m a quivering shaking wreck.
I’m light-headed, my hearing has gone weird and I’m having what can only be described as a semi out-of-body experience. My chest is tight, my breathing is so shallow that I wonder if I’m even breathing at all. A tremendous feeling of terror rocks me to the core and I’m physically trembling.
I recognise the feeling, but it hasn’t been this bad for 20 years, not since I was a teenager studying for my A-Levels. I know I’m having the mother of all panic attacks. If you have never had a panic attack then let me tell you that it can make you feel like you’re dying and about to lose all control. You’ll do anything to get out of it but you just don’t seem to get free.
At that moment, I was paralyzed by a fear of what would happen next. Would I go crazy? Would I collapse? Would I be trapped in this out of body feeling forever? The answer is no, the feeling does eventually dissipate; your body cannot stay in fight or flight mode indefinitely. But at the time, logic doesn't get a look in, you are totally trapped at that moment.
My friend’s husband raced me home in his car. I felt deep despair and terror and spent the next hour hiding in my bedroom, overwhelmed and unsure whether I would ever feel normal again.
On the outside, I was an outgoing, ambitious and fun person but internally I was living in constant fear
Before I go further and tell you how I’m finding help for my panic attacks, let me give you a bit of my mental health history. I’ve had anxiety since the age of nine. I had my first experience of panic sitting in a church next to a family friend who, unbeknown to my parents, had been inappropriate for some time and made me feel uncomfortable. I remember not being scared directly of him but feeling petrified that I couldn’t escape the church. This led to anxiety around school assemblies, lifts, planes… anywhere that I felt that I wouldn’t be able to escape.
I’ve seen therapists over the years about what happened to me as a child and have definitely processed it. Some feel that he was a contributing factor to my anxiety, others I believe he was the reason why it started. Then there are those who think that I have a genetic propensity for anxiety and that there is a lot more to it. Whatever the reason, feel lucky that it doesn’t seem to have affected my relationships.
My first full-blown panic attack happened at 18 when my anxiety reached its highest and I hit my lowest point. I was studying for my A-levels, putting a huge amount of pressure on myself to achieve. I remember sitting at the desk in the spare room, going over my notes on King Lear when I suddenly felt like I was floating above my body. I was there, but nothing seemed right or real. It was my first experience of ‘de-realisation’, a short-lived dissociative disorder where you feel detached from reality. It was like watching a movie of my life in real-time and was quite honestly the scariest thing I have ever experienced.
The feeling didn’t last for more than 20 minutes, but it was enough to cement a fear of it ever returning. When you start to fear a feeling and think about it a lot, you can very easily slip into a cycle where you actually cause it. I stupidly didn’t tell my parents what had happened and soldiered on. I lay on the floor rather than in my bed, just to feel like I was 'there'. I even ran into the garden on that freezing cold evening to try to shake myself out of the feeling.
The memory of that one experience stayed with me for years. It was there when I took public transport, when I went to university, on my year abroad in Paris and when I had my first job at a radio station in Gloucestershire. I could never quite relax because what if it happened again? On the outside, I was an outgoing, ambitious and fun person but internally I was living in constant fear.
I eventually told a friend at work what I was going through. She confided that she had experienced something similar and that going on an SSRI medication called Citalopram had been life-changing. This was all I needed to hear. Within an hour, I had secured an appointment with my GP and by the next week I was taking the tablet once a day. It didn’t take long for my anxiety to become more manageable and eventually, these tablets became a total game-changer for me too.
Suddenly everything became easier and I was able to stop fearing fear and start living life to the full. I knew that I would always be a worrier but the panic attacks and depersonalisation had all but disappeared. This remained the case for the next 20 years. There were occasional blips, such as when I went on a plane (still one of my most challenging no-escape scenarios) or when I had my son and felt pretty overwhelmed as a mother of two small children. But overall, things were good and my anxiety was a thing of the past.
So, imagine my surprise when at the age of 41, after coping well with so many major life events – marriage, two kids, losing my beloved grandma and grandpa, having a successful radio career, going it alone as the host of the Outspoken Beauty Podcast and seeing my gorgeous mum get re-married, I was flung back into the kind of experience that had terrified me in my late teens.
What caused it? I don't believe that there was one single thing, more a build-up of intense stress and anxiety around the pandemic. I was like a bottle of Coke that had been shaken and everything came bursting out on that particular night.
Back home, I desperately tried to calm down by trying to regulate my breathing and talking sense into myself by telling myself that nothing bad was going to happen. I messaged therapist and anxiety counsellor Joshua Fletcher aka Anxiety Josh. He’d been a guest on my podcast, where he'd talked about his own experience of anxiety and depersonalisation. He had eventually cured himself and gone on to qualify as a therapist and now helps thousands of people via his website thepanicroom.co.uk. I still had his number.
“Josh I’ve just had the worst panic attack I’ve had in 20 years. Totally overwhelmed. I don’t even know why. I’m absolutely petrified and can’t even pull myself out of it”, I texted. I broke my number one rule, which is don’t contact the guest when the podcast is done unless you’ve suddenly become firm friends. But this was a pretty desperate moment. Josh texted back instantly: “You don’t need to pull yourself out of it. It’ll end naturally. It’s just adrenaline.”
He went on to comfort me with many texts and words of wisdom and pointed me to an anxiety-busting track on his Instagram page which can help calm you when in the throes of a panic attack. It all really helped and I’m forever grateful to him for being there at that moment.