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PANIC ATTACKS
24/07/2007

You're just heading out the house when suddenly your heart is pounding, your throat's tightening and you're fighting for breath - welcome to the world of..

SARAH Hanley fights back tears as she dresses her eight-year-old son Samuel for a trip to the zoo. She won't be there to share his enjoyment because nine years of panic attacks have left her virtually housebound.

Even venturing a few metres from her home in Braintree, Essex, leaves her frozen with fear. "My heart races, my vision blurs, and I feel as though someone's holding a pillow over my mouth," says Sarah, 32.

"I can't take Samuel out like other mums. Instead my mum, my husband Paul, or Samuel's dad Stephen do that. Samuel just knows that Mummy feels funny when she goes out. It breaks my heart but I can't do it."

To outsiders, panic attacks can seem odd - surely it's just a case of calming down and getting a grip? But those who have suffered them would tell a different story.

Sarah's story is frighteningly common. One in three of us will have a panic attack at some stage in our life.

It may just be a one-off or it could be panic disorder - when attacks occur every month or even several times a week.

Attacks can come on when you least expect them.

They tend to be quick, with symptoms usually peaking within 10 minutes and most being over within 20 minutes.

Paul Farmer of mental health charity Mind says: "A panic attack can genuinely feel as though you're dying, even if you know rationally what's really going on."

There are a number of reasons for what causes these attacks - ranging from stress to problems with your diet or your breathing, or from a fear of something particular happening.

Sarah's problem first appeared when she was six months' pregnant with Samuel. At the time she worked as an admin assistant, and one day she fainted in the office.

"I came round petrified of being sick in front of everyone," she says. Tests showed the baby had lain across an artery, causing Sarah to faint. But the incident triggered a deep fear of fainting or being sick in public.

"It's typical for a sufferer to have a terror of fainting or losing control," says Paul Farmer. "That fear triggers a flood of adrenaline which causes a hammering heart, butterflies in the stomach and sweating. Those feelings then become overwhelming and trigger an attack."

Four days later Sarah experienced her first full-blown panic attack.

"I'd left work and was in my car when this wave of panic swept over me. My stomach was churning, my heart was racing, and I was petrified that if I got out or started driving, I'd faint or throw up. I couldn't move for an hour.

"My partner at the time, Stephen, had to come and get me and coax me out of the car."

Panic attacks are not dictated by personality type. Sarah had been carefree and was out most nights with her friends. Margaret Hawkins of charity No Panic, says: "Panic attacks don't just hit nervous people. Absolutely anyone can be affected, including outgoing, successful people."

For Sarah, things got worse and worse.

In Easter 2000 one terrifying attack made it almost impossible for her to leave home.

"I was out shopping with my mum and sister. My sister was pregnant and had morning sickness which raised all my fears about vomiting. We were about to get in a lift in one shop when I was overwhelmed with panic. I became hysterical, sobbing and screaming, until we had to leave and go home."

Frightened of a similar situation arising again, Sarah stopped going out altogether. But her panic attacks simply transferred to new situations in the home.

"My world became tiny - soon I couldn't face having anyone in the house apart from my mum and my partner," says Sarah. "I saw several therapists, but they all tried to encourage me to go outside and I just wasn't ready."

At her worst, Sarah was having a panic attack every day. She hit rock bottom one Saturday.

"I was watching TV and got more and more panicky. I couldn't swallow, I couldn't breathe, I was shaking and pacing around. Stephen sat me on the floor. I was too scared to move so he huddled with me until the next day."

The emotional pressure put a lot of strain on their relationship and they split up in 2002, leaving Sarah as a single mum. She says: "For Samuel's sake I knew I had to get on with my life as I didn't have someone else to rely on."

Bit by bit, she began to venture out, although she couldn't go far from home and needed her mum by her side. Months later she found love with an old colleague, Paul.

With his help she gradually went further and even made it to the local shops on her own.

By last August, Sarah had been free of panic attacks for 18 months. She has since had a relapse and is now on the waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy.

She says: "They might have cost me nine years of my life but my main concern is that Samuel doesn't miss out because of them."

HOW TO COPE

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other talking therapies can be very effective. This works by helping the sufferer to change long-held beliefs and behaviour. Speak to your GP about being referred.

Anti-depressant medication helps some sufferers - a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help to reduce anxiety.

Learning relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and hypnotherapy is also effective.

Diet can make a difference, especially cutting out caffeine, which increases anxiety. Excess alcohol and sugary foods can trigger see-sawing blood glucose levels which may also bring on an attack. By eating little and often you can keep energy levels steady.

Joining a support group where you can share your experiences with other sufferers can make you feel more in control. Try www.nomorepanic.co.uk or www.nopanic.org.uk

During an attack, try breathing in and out into a brown paper bag or your cupped hands. This helps to slow down your breathing and control the attack.

CELEBRITY SUFFERERS

CORRIE'S Kym Ryder had her first panic attack aged 21. "I felt like I couldn't breathe," she says. "I got a dry mouth, my heart started beating fast and my fingers were tingling." Sessions with a life coach helped her.

NICOLE Kidman had attacks on the red carpet. "I panic in front of all the cameras," she once said. "My hands start shaking and I have trouble breathing."

FOOTBALLERS' Wives star Zoe Lucker says: "It started with bad palpitations before a take - I wasn't sleeping and I was working 15-hour days." Reading The Art Of Happiness by the Dalai Lama helped calm Zoe's anxiety.

THE SYMPTOMS

A choking sensation

Feeling nauseous

Your heart starts racing

A churning in your stomach

Experiencing hot or cold sweats

Pains in your chest

Hearing a ringing in the ears

You start hyperventilating

A fear that you're going mad or having a heart attack

Feelings of impending doom
 

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