First panic attack right through to recovery

cartoon image of psychologist
Dr Elaine Ryan
Written by Dr Elaine Ryan Psychologist and Founder of MoodSmith® Elaine obtained her Dr in Psychology from the University of Surrey and has worked in psychology for 20 years. Dr Ryan specialises in Intrusive Thoughts, OCD and anxiety-related conditions.

My first panic attack

If this is your first time on my site, my name is Elaine, and I specialise in anxiety disorders. I also suffered from panic attacks.

This page is a personal account of what panic attacks were like for me. If you are looking for a more formal page on panic attacks that discusses treatments and recovery options, you should read this first.

I wanted to write this page, as much of what I read on the internet gave formal descriptions of panic attacks that I found difficult to relate to. I shall be as open and honest as I can, I am not ashamed of what happened to me, and this is one of the biggest reasons I wanted to write a personal account, many years later, as I was overwhelmingly ashamed at the time.

dr elaine ryan

I have a lot more compassion now towards myself, and I thought that if I wrote a personal account of my own development of panic, that you might be able to relate to it, and in doing so, not feel ashamed, as you have enough to contend with, with the panic attacks!

The first night I had a panic attack

I had just finished a phone call late at night and felt what I can only describe as a feeling of electricity travelling up through my legs.

I wasn’t too alarmed at this, as I had been experiencing similar sensations for about one month before, but not to this extent.

Very quickly, I found it hard to breathe. My face was tingling, and the air was not getting in. I was suffocating.

It is hard to remember all the symptoms that I experienced, and I am sure I will miss a few. What I will not miss is having an immediate feeling of complete and utter terror.

I believed, without a shadow of a doubt that I was dying.

I checked my pulse and it was very faint.

I was alone. After midnight, I ran to the apartment upstairs and started banging on the door that I needed help.

I rang a friend who lived nearby and she sent her husband round.

I was out on the street waiting for him to arrive, and he drove me to the hospital. The journey was terrifying as I found it difficult to breathe, and my pulse felt weak.

I was kept in the hospital until about 5 am while they did tests. Everything was okay. They said I might have had a panic attack and checked in with my doctor during the day.

I was at the hospital the next night, and a few more nights that week.

Fast forward a good few years to now, and I know that night, I had my first full-blown panic attack.

Hindsight is a great thing …

I didn’t see it at the time, but I see it now. I had a whole host of symptoms for about one month beforehand and had repeated visits to my local doctor. I didn’t see the warning signs.

My trouble back then, before the first panic attack, occurred only at night in bed. As I was falling asleep, I felt “jolts” in my body. The doctor thought that I was experiencing paresthesia (numbness, tingling, pins and needles.)

It occurred mostly in my legs and lower body and felt like I was shaking in my bed. I was fine with this as I was getting it checked out medically.
 

Feeling sleep deprived probably did not help, as quite quickly, my sleep was poor.

The night that I had my first panic attack, starting with feeling this familiar jolt, only they arrived with more force and speed, and I wasn’t in bed.

From that first panic attack, I can only describe it as one awful roller coaster. Every night in bed, after about 45 minutes of sleep, I woke in a state of terror with those same jolts, only now, each night, I couldn’t breathe properly, and a pounding heart was added to the mix.

One minute I was asleep, the next I was awake, quite literally, jumping out of bed. Sweating, shaking, heart-pounding, and a terrible feeling of suffocation. Those were my biggest symptoms. But none could top the fear.

I was terrified every night this happened. At the time, I was living alone. It was not uncommon for me to bolt out of bed, pull on clothes in a flash, and go out and walk the streets. Why I did this, I will never know :)

For those of you who know me, you will already know that I am a psychologist, so that I can give a psychological explanation for this. Still, as a woman in the throes of panic attacks every night, a psychological explanation was the furthest thing from my mind!

I just felt a little safer being outside, even if it was the middle of the night.

My symptoms were no longer confined to being in bed. Like an unwelcome friend, they pretty much accompanied me everywhere.

It only took a few weeks before I became afraid to go to bed. The month before my first attack, I pretty much knew that I would be woken after about 45 minutes with jolts, but I was not afraid of this. What I was experiencing now, I was afraid of.

I would stay up as long as I possibly could before going to bed. Once in bed, when my head hit the pillow, I could hear my heart pounding out through my ear onto the pillow. To say this wasn’t very pleasant is an understatement.

I can only describe it as lying in bed completely wired. It felt like every nerve in my body had been turned up to the max.

For the next few months, I don’t think there was one night when I didn’t get woken up after 45 minutes in a panic attack.

Things started getting worse for me when I had my first panic attack in the morning. I thought it couldn’t get any worse.

Now, it’s the morning. I had to go to work, and was running about as a woman possessed! I stopped for a minute when I wrote that last line. I thought it looked a little flippant. It is not meant that way. I guess I realized how much different I am now.

It also made me think of a book, which I read at the time. It mentioned hearing your heartbeat in your ear when you lie down, and that there would come a time when you would be able to ignore it and go to sleep. I remember thinking, you are joking me? You haven’t felt what I am feeling. But I get it now.

What I am trying to say, is that I am not being flippant. When panic attacks first come, it is impossible to think that you can get better, but you can.

Panic attacks and going to work

So I now have panic attacks and have to get ready to go to work. For the first few mornings, I called in sick, as I literally could not go.

I had to go back in, though, as in my mind I was thinking, “what could I say? I’m having panic attacks and need time off?” Back then, I worked as a psychologist; yes, I have been doing this a long time.

I suppose I felt ashamed.

Now as I am writing this, there is no shame.

Panic attacks are not prejudiced. They do not care about race, religion or profession. Anyone can get them.

I have spoken to quite a few psychologists and other people who work in the health sector and have had panic attacks. Burnout was a more acceptable phrase, but I will talk about that in another post.

I started to set my alarm earlier than normal to allow me the time to get myself together after having a panic attack and get into work. Everything that I had previously taken for granted was problematic for me now.

The shower, I used to love it. I know now that it was the heat increasing my heart rate, but anything that increases your heart rate is a nightmare with panic attacks.

Driving to work was terrifying. The whole journey was spent trying to breathe. Each in-breath felt like I was taking in all the air on the planet, and blowing it out slowly through pursed lips, trying to slow it all down. Trying to keep going without having to pull in.

Made it. Walking into the building as a mental health professional. 8 hours to go. Hyperventilating my way through meetings, terrified and feeling like a fraud with clients. Once I got so dizzy and lightheaded I had to stop halfway through a meeting and apologize that I was feeling ill.

I was feeling ill indeed, but I needed to get out. Those of you reading this, that have had a panic attack will know what I mean.

I was taking sick days each week, and thanks to a very understanding doctor, I got signed off work for one month.

I got on a plane and flew home to be with my family.

I had forgotten about the airport until I just wrote that. Talk about palpitations. I was sweating and every chance I had, I was counting my heartbeats per minute. I almost did not get on the plane.

Once back home with my family, I felt a certain sense of relief. The pressure of work and feeling like a fraud was lifted, but everything else came on that plane with me.

Daily panic attacks, and was still having them during the night.

That month was a God Send, I started to calm down and I think I was starting to get used to them. I felt fairly okay to fly back.

I do remember walking up the street pulling my suitcase behind me and feeling my breathing heavy and my heartbeat was strong, but I genuinely thought it was the exertion of going uphill, pulling a suitcase.

The split second I opened the door to where I lived, it all came back. Literally, as I walked in through the door.

I can’t express to you what that felt like. Complete disappointment, sadness, and terror, but terror was quick to take over.

Fast forward to now, I understand what was happening; it was how my brain reacted. Somewhere in my brain, my apartment was deemed not safe for me and gave me a panic attack as soon as I walked in through the door.

I think it was only a matter of a few days, before I flew back home again.

I was emotionally and physically exhausted.

If I go back a bit further back, it is probably safe to say that I was an anxious child. Night terrors made up some of my childhood.

In early adulthood, I was a great worrier. If you asked me at the time, I would say that I didn’t worry, but looking back; I did.

Worried about exams, worried about work, worried what people thought of me. I could even worry about when exactly the postman was going to deliver a parcel I was expecting.

Did this cause me to have panic attacks? Maybe. That and a few other factors are thrown into the equation.

My own view of this, if you are interested, is that it had a lot to do with how was as a person habitually, and how I cope with things in my life.

Is there a cure?

Many people spend hours searching for a cure for panic attacks. I always have mixed feelings about the word “cure.” For me anyway, it implies something that will happen quickly and panic attacks will be out of your life forever. I don’t think there is a miracle cure. You don’t want to cure anxiety, as anxiety when experienced appropriately is necessary. Without it, we would never be able to get out of harm’s way.

My views of cures out of the way then, what is there? What did I learn?

In a word? Understanding.

I had to make changes. All the small things together, how I was as a person, how I responded to stress, how much I worried, basically did not help me very much and were a large part, of why I ended up having panic attacks.

A few months previous to my first panic attack, there was quite a lot going on in my life. A recent breakup, work and a family member were ill.

These things can all happen in life, but the important thing to note is that we all cope with them differently. My day to day way of “being” did not help me, in the long run, to cope, when life threw me a curveball.

It was not ‘one big thing’ that caused my panic attacks. My own opinion is that it was a mix of things occurring together and my ability to cope with them. I changed my ability to cope!

Getting over panic attacks.

You can do it. Yes, this site is built around a program that I have for panic attacks and anxiety, but this post I have written is not. I try to be as honest as I can. I wrote this post to let you know that panic attacks can happen to anyone and that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Whether you do a program or find your own way through it, you should know, that this is something that you can overcome.

You don’t fight it, or launch into it like some sort of battle plan. That won’t help. You make changes.

I don’t mind now that I had panic attacks, as it has changed how I work. As a said before, I am a psychologist. Now I have to say, that I don’t believe that someone working in the health sector has to experience personally every single condition in order to be able to help. They don’t.

Saying that I have changed how I work with people with panic and anxiety. For one, I now specialize in anxiety, and that of course came from my own experiences. There is no greater motivator (for me) than needing to fix myself!

I am very open about it, and this in itself, has helped some people, knowing that they are not alone with what is happening to them.

If you are reading this as you are currently having panic attacks; there are things that you can do, to help yourself to calm down. This whole site is dedicated to anxiety, so have a look around as there are many things on here to help you.

Online self-help

If you would like my help, please see my online courses

Table of Contents

Recent articles