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How CBT can help you cope with anxiety, panic attacks and panic disorder

My first panic attack was probably the scariest half hour of my life.

My tongue was so swollen that it was going to detach itself and fall down my throat; my heart was palpitating at such speed that it would surely explode right then and there in my chest; and my brain was so overwhelmed with the situation that it was only a matter of minutes before it cut out completely.

Of course, none of these things were actually happening. But the sensations of panic led me to believe that they were and that I was dying. I had only been getting ready for bed, about to sit and read another chapter of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The catastrophic feelings would have made more sense if I was preparing for a big job interview or about to board an epic rollercoaster ride.

I experienced a few more similar attacks, thinking that each one was going to kill me. It quickly reached a point where I was so constantly worried about another imminent attack, that an omnipresent anxiety overshadowed me day and night.

What are anxiety, panic attacks and panic disorders?
  • Anxiety is a mix of emotional and physical sensations that we usually experience when we are worried, stressed or nervous about something. These sensations are usually our body’s reaction to feeling threatened, when it is preparing to ‘fight or flight’.
  • A panic attack is an intense feeling of this anxiety, usually lasting between 5-20 minutes. Here are just some of the symptoms:- sweating- shortness of breath- dizziness- a choking sensation
  • It can feel like something catastrophic is happening, but it’s important to try to remember that a panic attack will not cause you any serious harm.
  • A panic disorder is when you regularly experience recurring panic attacks for no known reason (like an argument, or an impending exam).

It was a vicious cycle that seriously started to affect my social life. I remember one time going out for a lovely meal with my friends and suppressing my feelings of absolute dread and dizziness throughout the whole thing. This would happen regularly, at work, at the dinner table and on the bus going to a pal’s for a catch up.

Moving to London made it worse: from irrationally fearing every single Tube or bus ride, to quickly entering a new relationship and new friendships that made me focus even more on my faults and failures, to the pressure of competing against a trillion other millennials all after the same career as me.
It was time to swallow my pride and take action for the sake of my sanity and self-esteem. I went to my GP who advised me to ring the local hospital and arrange for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

What is CBT?
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a talking therapy. It helps you to manage anxiety by focusing on how you think and behave.
  • It is based on the concept that negative thoughts can turn into a vicious cycle. Over a course of sessions, you are shown how to change these negative patterns.
  • Each session lasts between half an hour to an hour. In these sessions, you will speak with your therapist about the sensations and thoughts that you feel. Together, you will breakdown and analyse these to get a better understanding of your thought pattern.
  • You will also probably be asked to take part in simple exercises to test ways of controlling anxiety and panic. Hopefully, you will finish the therapy with new skills to use in daily life.

I’d heard about this type of therapy before but waved it off as being silly any time someone suggested it. ‘How much can it really help?’ I would reply, ‘I’d probably only waste their time with my trivial problems anyway.’ But after hearing other people’s positive experiences of it (turns out more people than you think are going through the same thing!), I decided to give it a shot.

I was nervous, dubious and – if I’m being completely honest – slightly embarrassed. But after a friendly phone consultation, I went along to meet my therapist. She was fantastic and put me at ease straight away. I’d even go as far to say that we had a laugh together from time to time.

She explained the cycle of panic to me and we did exercises to reconstruct the sensations I often felt. In one session, we went for a run around the local park to get my heart beat going. In another, we went to the supermarket together – a place where panic regularly caught me out.

After a few months of weekly sessions, I left with a better knowledge of my anxiety and panic disorder and how to control my thoughts to break the cycle. Although there have been a few moments where I’ve given in to panic, I haven’t had a full attack in over a year and I quickly bat down the sensations when they arise.

It was probably the most important action I’ve ever taken to help improve my mental health, and I urge anyone experiencing similar symptoms to go to their GP and discuss CBT. You might even have some fun while doing it!

Find more information on anxiety and panic attacks on the Mind website or through NHS Choices. You can also learn more about what happens in CBT sessions here.

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Image: Amber Griffin

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