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Anxiety attacks ruled my life

This page created September 2003.
By Tammy

In her late twenties, Tammy's life suddenly got extremely stressful. But what followed was worse: panic attacks that nearly destroyed her. Here's how she beat them.

"Three and a half years ago I was under an enormous amount of stress - my marriage was breaking down, and my targets as a salesperson for a large corporation seemed to be very unachievable. Since my parents had divorced when I was little, I know how traumatic it is for kids when their mum and dad separate. So when my marriage started to turn bad after only 12 months, I decided to cut my ties and leave my husband - before there were any children involved.

I've always been a perfectionist, very conscious of what people think of me, and a bit of a people pleaser. As a result, I had very high expectations of my marriage and my performance at work, and neither was going the way I'd planned. One Friday evening, after going out for a few drinks with friends from work, I went home and spent the whole night throwing up. I thought it was just something I'd eaten because I was shivering uncontrollably. I also had severe heart palpitations and pins and needles in my arms and legs, but I had no idea what was wrong with me - I hadn't had that much to drink.

The attacks happened regularly after that, and included weekly bouts of diarrhoea. Each of them lasted four hours or more, and went on until I was so sick and exhausted that I fell asleep. Once I asked my husband to take me to the hospital because I believed I was having a heart attack.

I went to see three different doctors and none of them knew what was wrong with me. They just prescribed sleeping and anti-nausea pills, and one doctor even suggested that I change jobs. After that I discovered a book called Living With It: A Survivor's Guide to Panic Attacks by Bev Aisbett ( I'd never heard of panic attacks before, but all the symptoms listed on the first page sounded so familiar. I knew that was my problem.

Because it's difficult to get one's appetite back after a major panic attack, I lost about five kilos during the three or four months after my first attack; I was looking thin and sickly as a result. The problem was exacerbated when I separated from my husband. I spiralled into a depression that would last for days at a time. Then I'd feel great for awhile and I'd think, 'Oh, I'm really doing well,' but then I'd have another attack and it would destroy my self-esteem again. I was having them a few times a week - I'd throw up all night and then have to go to work the next morning. I thought 'I'm never going to get out of this cycle,' and it became really quite debilitating. I even contemplated suicide a few times because I couldn't see a light at the end of the tunnel.

If I went out, or had people over for dinner, I'd have a panic attack. I'd literally spend half the night in the toilet throwing up while I was trying to cook! I developed a fear of social situations and tried to avoid restaurants and parties. If I did have to go to a restaurant, I'd sit close to the toilets in case I had an attack. I was becoming agoraphobic and never wanted to leave the house.

When my husband and I had been separated for nine months, I decided to buy the house we had shared and move back in there - which was very difficult for me emotionally. I also started to see a counsellor about the divorce, I felt like such a failure.

The attacks were getting the better of me and were starting to impact on my work. I couldn't even go in some mornings because I was so exhausted, and it got to the point where I passed out before a presentation, and someone else had to take over. I ended up leaving my job - it was giving me too much stress and I needed a break.

Meanwhile, I met a new guy who was incredibly supportive. During my lowest of lows he would make sure I ate, which was wonderful. He even offered to support me financially - but I knew I'd never work again if I agreed to that. And although some of the books I read said to eat well, rest and exercise, others were quite confronting; suggesting I might be having the attacks because they, 'work for me' in some way. I had to ask myself why? Was I getting more attention? Was it an excuse? I could see that, yes, I wanted to just give up; and yes, I just wanted someone to look after me. So, I decided to see a psychologist to try to understand why this was happening.

I realised that my high expectations, and a need to seek approval from everyone affected me. People who get panic attacks are often trying to please others. I needed to learn to take pressure off myself - to not spend the entire weekend cooking and cleaning because friends were coming over, but to realise people were coming to see me rather than check how clean my house was! I had to change my attitude and say, 'It's not that important.' It was very hard in the beginning, but I slowly started turning my reactions around.

I wanted to get better without drugs, so I tried yoga, Bowen therapy, relaxation techniques and massage. Understanding where it all came from mentally, plus all the natural therapies I used, helped to get the attacks down to a manageable level. Exercise, sleep, a good diet, and no alcohol or caffeine, also helped. Very slowly, I started to get a bit better, and the attacks occurred less and less frequently.

Eventually I applied for a new job and got it, but the first morning before work I was curled up on my floor bawling to my boyfriend, 'I can't go, I'm not going to turn up.' I really didn't want to let myself down, so I dragged myself in, even though my face and eyes were red from crying. For the first two months, I would have panic attacks every Sunday night. I was concerned because I felt the need to be perfect again, to know everything that my colleagues knew. So I went back to see my psychologist and he helped me to rationalise my thoughts.

I still get the attacks, but it's only once every few months, and it's because I start to fall into my old habits. I had one recently when I had to travel interstate for work - I was up all night vomiting. I had to be up at five in the morning and I knew I'd be exhausted, but although I thought it would be easier to ring and say I'm not coming, I realised that I would have had to go through the whole thing again the next day! So I just told myself, 'It doesn't matter if I'm tired the next day, I'll sleep on the plane. I can handle it now.'" As told to Emily Lawrence Gazal

(Reprinted with permission - Cosmopolitan Magazine, July, 2003)

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