I distinctly remember my first panic attack, I worked in a local café at weekends whilst in high school, I would have been 15 at the time and I was walking through the shopping centre when it hit me. Time seemed to standstill yet speed up at the same time and suddenly I had a crushing sense of panic taking over my body and an overwhelming urge to escape. I ran through the centre to the bus stop and sat at the back of the bus and simply cried all the way home. People looked over; my mind state had them pointing/staring/laughing, I now don’t believe this to be true instead a symptom of the anxiety but at the time it was something I felt keenly. The theme of feeling laughed at has featured heavily in my anxiety/panic attacks.
As I simply couldn’t explain what was the matter at the time and still to this day don’t know what triggered that first panic attack, it was all put down to me being an overly dramatic teenager (I have an A in GCSE drama don’t you know) and life went on. However the paralysing sense of panic is unfortunately something I would become accustomed to.
Over the next 15 years anxiety would sweep in and out of my life. There were periods of time where I struggled to be able to leave the house or sometimes even get out of bed and days were lost in a haze of anxiety and sense of hopelessness. Panic attacks could be so severe I would feel like my throat was closing up, I would think I was genuinely having a heart attack and was going to die. As a migraine sufferer a severe migraine usually followed a panic attack, providing me with a ready-made excuse to hide behind whenever I wanted to leave somewhere or as a reason for sometimes simply not turning up. This hiding from the problem and not being honest with people caused me further anxiety and guilt, leaving me feeling like a terrible human being to the people I loved and a fraud in my career.
Relationships were ruined by my inability to express why sometimes inexplicitly I felt so sad or staggering anger at myself to not just be able to snap out of it as the few people I told early on had said to me to do. In the end I just hid everything behind my migraine excuse as I felt that it made me sound less crazy than the feelings I was having
There were also times where I could go for weeks or months without an attack and this should have made me happy. Instead I felt like I was always waiting, when would it strike again? When I was on a night out with the girls, trying to enjoy a nice dinner out or maybe when I was preparing for a big meeting at work? What special event did it have the power to ruin for me or had it all been in my head to begin with and there was nothing wrong with me? Was I was just overly dramatic and hormonal, not actually suffering from anxiety because if I did then I should feel like it all the time? These overwhelming, conflicting feelings lead me to feeling just not quite right or good enough a great deal of the time.
Over the years I did reach out for professional help a few times, I was prescribed medication which reduced me to not being able to feel anything which seemed an even worse alternative to the anxiety itself and I tried counselling. Personally I struggled with counselling as I felt they were always seeking an underlying cause, a reason for my “illness” and it left me feeling a massive fraud when I could not provide them some catastrophic event that had caused me to have this anxiety. I thought that was it; there was never any way that I was going to be able to get this completely under control.
Then I did two things. Firstly I got a rescue cat, I had read that it was good for anxiety/depression sufferers to own a pet as it gave them something to focus on other than their feelings of anxiousness. So enter Bob aka “Fat Cat” a big fat tom cat that nobody wanted and was highly likely to be put down due to illness, it was this sense of being unwanted that somehow resonated with me. (I adopted Frank a couple of years later, another rescue cat who was dumped by the side of the road and is partially sighted aka “Not So Fat Cat”) we very quickly became attached and he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He got me up in the morning with his meows for food – anyone with a cat knows they expect to be waited on! Being an indoor cat he was always at home and I loved the feeling of eternal company with no judgement.
The second thing I did was I went to yoga, as per my previous blog I had initially started yoga to avoid going running it was nothing to do with controlling my anxiety, I just wanted to get fit and hopefully a bit skinnier. At the time I wasn’t even aware of the links between a steady yoga practice and improved mental health, it was the physical practice that I loved.
However it very quickly became apparent that yoga was offering me more than just a work out, there is a sense of grounding in yoga, a focus on the breath to get you in and out of poses. It was these unexpected elements of the practice that helped clear my mind and find a sense of calmness that I hadn’t felt before. Then it started to carry over into my day to day life too. I found I was sleeping better and has so much more energy this made me feel much more equipped to deal with the stresses that everyday life throws at you.
Yoga also helped me separate out when something had annoyed me or upset me away from my anxiety, as I often felt that feelings of anger or hurt were brushed aside as being part of the anxiety and therefore in my imagination and not actually a real problem when I expressed them. Being able to separate the two allowed me to find my voice, which helped me make sense of my feelings so I knew what made me truly happy and what didn’t.
Yoga has given me a safe place to go when I’m not feeling 100%. Beginners are often worried about going to a class as they are concerned they won’t be good enough. When I’m not teaching I still often go straight to the back of the class rather than be front row and center, but once you are there and the class gets started I find you become focused on yourself and your relationship with the mat. You switch off to what is around you so it doesn’t really matter where you are in the room it just matters that you are there.
On my yoga teacher training course the lead teacher would shout out “no window shopping” if we were looking at someone in a more advanced pose during a practice rather than focusing on ourselves and the breath. This is something that I now hold onto in my yoga practice and in my life off the mat as there is no greater thief of joy or your own piece of mind than comparing yourself to others.
I rarely suffer from a full blown panic attack now and if I do, I know what to do to get it under control and not let it completely take over and this has been the greatest gift that yoga has given me.
Further reading on the benefits of yoga for anxiety
Bob aka “Fat Cat”
Frank aka “Not so Fat Cat”