Panic attack

Monday morning just before 6am. I could have slept in today, what with the children being off school for the holidays. My body clock does not understand this change in routine. My husband left a cup of tea on my bedside table when he left for work so I sit up to enjoy it, firing up my social networks to see what the rest of the world has been doing. And there it is, a simple status update. I have tried so hard to make my loved ones understand the impact that such events have on me. I see the exasperation in their faces, that they think I am making an unnecessary fuss, that I should just stop behaving like this.

If only I could.


Anxiety is something that we all experience from time to time. Most people can relate to feeling tense, uncertain and, perhaps, fearful at the prospect of certain events or situations that they find stressful. This type of short-term anxiety can be useful. For example, feeling nervous before an exam can make you feel more alert and enhance your performance. However, if the feelings of anxiety overwhelm you, your ability to concentrate and do well may suffer.

When you feel under threat anxiety and fear can protect you from danger by triggering the release of hormones such as adrenalin. Adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster to carry blood to where it is most needed. You breathe faster to provide the extra oxygen required for energy. You sweat to prevent overheating. Your mouth may feel dry as your digestive system slows down to allow more blood to be sent to your muscles. Your senses become heightened and your brain becomes more alert.

These changes make your body able to take action and protect you in a dangerous situation either by running away or fighting. It is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reflex. Once the danger has passed, other hormones are released, which may cause you to shake as your muscles start to relax.

This response is useful for protecting you against physical dangers. The response is not so useful if you want to run away from a stressful situation where there is no physical threat. If you have no need to physically run away or fight, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly, and you may go on feeling agitated for a long time.

If the anxiety stays at a high level then you may feel that it is difficult to deal with everyday life. The anxiety may become severe; you may feel powerless, out of control. Sometimes, if the feelings of fear overwhelm you, you may experience a panic attack.

A panic attack is an exaggeration of the body’s normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It is the rapid build-up of overwhelming sensations, such as a pounding heartbeat, feeling faint, sweating, nausea, chest pains, breathing discomfort, feelings of losing control and shaky limbs. It can be a frightening experience.

If something distressing happened to you in the past and you were unable to deal with your emotions at the time then you may become anxious about facing similar situations again in case they stir up the same feelings of distress. Some theories suggest that you may inherit a tendency to be more anxious, and so it is a part of your personality.

Anxiety can have an effect on both your body and your mind.

Physical effects


  • Increased muscular tension can cause achiness.
  • Rapid breathing may make you feel light-headed and shaky.
  • Rising blood pressure can make you more aware of a pounding heart.
  • Changes in the blood supply to your digestive system may cause nausea.


  • Fear combined with tension and lack of sleep can weaken your immune system, lowering your resistance to infection.
  • You may experience digestive difficulties.
  • You may feel depressed.

Psychological effects

Anxiety can make you more fearful, alert, on edge, irritable, and unable to relax or concentrate. You may feel an overwhelming desire to seek the reassurance of others, to be weepy and dependent.

The way you think can be affected: if you fear that the worst is going to happen, you may start to see everything negatively and become very pessimistic. If your anxiety is severe then you may find it difficult to develop or maintain good relationships, or simply to enjoy leisure time. Sleep problems may make your anxious feelings even worse and reduce your ability to cope.

For some people, anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it takes over their lives. They may experience severe or very frequent panic attacks, or have a persistent sense of anxiety. Some people may develop a phobia about going out or may withdraw from contact with people, even their family and friends.


Like many mental issues, understanding the causes and effects does little to remove the stigma attached. We are expected to just get on with it, to accept what is happening and stop making such a fuss. Others cope fine with far more challenging situations. We are at fault.

I have to make choices. I can try to take control, look after myself, and risk seriously annoying my loved ones in the process. Or I can try to do what is easiest for everyone but me, and thus risk a recurrence of this panic. The thought of that makes my heart beat stupidly fast, the nausea threatens to overwhelm me.

I don’t yet know what I shall do. I want to escape but where could I go? I feel such a failure for not being able to deal with this rationally. Sometimes just keeping on living is so hard.


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