'I feel like I'm dying': the effects of panic attacks and anxiety – and how to overcome them

'In reality it’s like having liquid terror injected into your veins'

Claire Eastham
Monday 13 April 2015 16:09 BST

Come on, you can do this. Just keep it together. You’ve been practising all night, you’ll be fine. Why haven’t they arrived yet? This room is too small. Oh God it’s happening again. Heart is racing and chest is tight. I won’t be able to speak, I’ll faint, I’m going to run around the room screaming and then everyone will realise what a freak I am. I have to get out of here now.

That is the day I walked out of a job interview, one which I really wanted, minutes before it began. I had (what I now know) was a panic attack, the worst of my life.

By definition a panic attack is a sudden rush of physical and psychological symptoms. In reality it’s like having liquid terror injected into your veins. You cannot think straight and you have an overwhelming sensation that something is very wrong.

From an evolutionary perspective they are an extension of the fight or flight defence mechanism that helped humans to survive. In prehistoric times, cavemen relied on this rapid ability to react to danger. If a caveman encountered a hungry lion then he had two options; either fight it or run away. Both of these require huge surges of adrenalin to flood the body with the extra strength needed. The stress felt when he believed his life to be in danger triggered the fight or flight response.

Unfortunately the world has changed faster than evolution could adapt. These days, there is little chance that you’ll bump into a lion at work, (unless you’re Bear Grylls!). However, what if other things cause high levels of stress such as; board meetings, interviews and heavy workloads? The brain is tricked into believing that the body is in danger and triggers the fight or flight response. The problem is, you can’t actually fight your boss or run out of a meeting. So this extra adrenalin becomes redundant and instead courses through the body without an exit, causing physical symptoms such as a pounding heart and sweating.

The brain, unable to recognise any present danger, becomes distressed by this reaction and asks questions, what is happening? Why am I reacting like this? This in turn increases the adrenalin and the vicious cycle continues, otherwise known as a panic attack.

There are many arguments as to why and how panic and anxiety develops in a person: genetics, difficult childhoods, trauma, but there is no concrete evidence. What’s important is to understand them and learn how to manage the effects.

So what do people need to know about panic attacks?

They cannot hurt you

It might feel as though you’re about to die or lose your mind, but you’re not. It is also very unlikely that you will faint. Panic attacks are a strong dose of fear and this causes both the body and brain to react intensely. Try and think of them as a trick. You are not in any real danger, but you feel afraid. For example, in the cinema when watching a horror movie you can feel scared even though you’re perfectly safe. Try and think of panic attacks in a similar way.

Don't berate yourself

Panic attacks are an irrational reaction and therefore cannot be treated in a rational way. Arguing with your thoughts or berating yourself to snap out of it will only make it worse. Instead, try and accept what is happening and be kind. Make yourself comfortable in whatever way you can. Try and get some fresh air, listen to some music and do some steady belly breathing to increase the oxygen flow.

Ask for help

If you find that they are disrupting your day to day life and preventing you from doing certain things; dining out, going to the supermarket, or speaking in meetings, then it might be time to get some help. Both anxiety and panic attacks are very treatable and there are numerous dedicated charities such as Mind and Anxiety UK which can offer help and advice.

1 in 4 of us

Most importantly, they are much more common than you think. In fact one in four people have experienced anxiety or panic attacks. So you ar not alone. People are also a lot more understanding than you might expect - there is nothing to be ashamed of. Mental health is something that employers must take seriously.

For more information on panic attacks visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk/

Claire Eastham authors the blog http://weallmadhere.com/2013/10/09/me-myself-and-amygdala/

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in