What Is A Panic Attack?

First thing’s first – what is a panic attack? The HSE say that a panic attack is ‘a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety.’ That definitely sounds unpleasant but if you’ve never experienced a panic attack, it can be difficult to imagine what that actually feels like. If I have a loved one who would like to understand I ask them to imagine the thing they truly fear the most in the world and then imagine how they would feel if that thing were to actually happen. Now imagine feeling that level of intense fear and anxiety totally out of the blue. Imagining it is obviously not entirely the same thing but it goes some way towards helping them understand. (I just want to point out that I don’t go around asking people to think of the thing that scares them the most because that’s not nice, please don’t do that! However, if a loved one specifically asks then I’ll broach it.)

There are a ton of symptoms that come with panic attacks and different people experience different ones. Symptoms can include:

  • A racing heart, a pounding heart or palpitations
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Feeling short of breath or as though you can’t get enough oxygen
  • Hyperventilating (breathing too fast which speeds up heart rate)
  • A sensation of choking
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • A fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • A fear of dying

Given the symptoms, it’s not surprising that many people think they are having a hear attack but it’s important to know that a panic attack will not kill you.

Panic itself is a good thing, it’s kept us alive for years. The ‘fight or flight’ response alerts us to potential danger and allows us to act in an appropriate manner. However, problems arise when this response is switched on when there’s no need, when there is no danger. It’s almost like a house or car alarm going off without reason.

There isn’t a definite answer as to why panic attacks occur*. Some people have specific triggers that they can easily identify such as particularly stressful events (losing a job, death of a loved one, etc) or major life changes (graduating college/uni, having a baby, getting married, etc). Panic attacks can also present with other illnesses. For example, a person with social anxiety disorder may have a panic attack before they’re due to give a presentation. Those who have experienced a panic attack may be so fearful and anxious about having another one that they develop panic disorder.

So, what can you do if you have a panic attack?

  • Try to remember that the panic attack can’t hurt you. It is no doubt unpleasant and frightening but you will be okay.
  • If you are hyperventilating try to focus on slowing your breathing. Breathe in for 4, hold for 1, breathe out for 4.
  • Try to focus on something other than the panic attack. Pick an object nearby and notice everything about it. Describe it to yourself in as much detail as possible. Sometimes drawing your attention away from the panic attack can stop it.
  • If your surroundings aren’t what triggered the panic attack pay attention to them. Do your best to ground yourself wherever you are. For example – I’m safe, I’m sitting at home, there’s nothing here that will hurt me, the tv is on, I can hear the clock, I can hear the birds outside, I know this place, I’m safe.
  • If your surroundings are causing your panic attack try closing your eyes (if it’s safe to do so!). Sometimes reducing stimuli can stop a panic attack.

If you’re experiencing panic attacks speak to your healthcare provider. There’s no need to be embarrassed about having panic attacks. Around 2.4 million Americans experience panic disorder in a given year** so you’re not alone and it’s likely that your doctor will be familiar with them. There are medications that can be used to help treat chronic panic attacks (panic disorder) as well as a number or therapies such as CBT or DBT so don’t feel like you’ll be stuck having them forever.

I lived with panic disorder for almost ten years. When it was at it’s worst I had several panic attacks every single day. It was so bad for me because initially I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t have help. However, once I did have support and I was able to educate myself I found that the panic attacks subsided. I haven’t had one in almost five years but if I was to have one, I’d know how to deal with it. It can get better, there is hope.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Panic attacks are truly exhausting so give yourself a break! Take time to recover. If you are a loved one of someone who experiences panic attacks, keep in mind that they’ll probably be emotionally and physically drained after experiencing a panic attack, they may also be fearful of having another so do your best to let them know you’re there to support them.

*https://www.psycom.net/what-does-a-panic-attack-feel-like/

**http://www.fearclinic.ufl.edu/PanicDisorders.html

Need help or advice? Click here for a list of support charities and organisations.

Talk Therapy – Benefits and Misconceptions

Note: this post is discussing private psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy or counselling, rather than therapy accessed through public healthcare such as the HSE or NHS.

According to a study conducted by the University of California – Los Angeles, verbalising our emotions makes our negative feelings such as sadness, anger and pain less intense. Furthermore, putting our feelings into words – talking to a therapist or friend helps us to feel better.

Talk therapy is especially useful for those experiencing a mental health difficulty such as an anxiety disorder or depression. A therapist provides a confidential, safe space to explore your thoughts and feelings. They can be a sounding board, someone to guide you through difficult feelings and someone to offer a different perspective, one that you might not consider on your own.

Therapy is also helpful for anyone struggling to manage emotions and stressors, even the ones that aren’t life altering or traumatic. It can help an individual establish and maintain better emotional wellness.

Counselling is generally confidential*, so there’s no fear of having a therapist tell the world about the difficulties you are experiencing. Therapists/counsellors must adhere to a code of ethics which protects both themselves and the client. Some of the things usually outlined in this is the client’s right to respect, dignity and confidentiality along with continued education/supervision for the therapist.**

There are some misconceptions about this kind of therapy –

  • A therapist won’t magically ‘fix’ all of your problems for you but they will facilitate conversation to help you navigate your own way through them while offering support and a listening ear.
  • Therapy is not lying on a couch or some strange Freudian dream, it will likely involve both parties having a conversation while sitting opposite each other. However, most therapists will be open to you sitting in whatever way is comfortable for you.
  • Therapy is not for ‘crazy’ people. All sorts of people attend talk therapy for a whole host of reasons. Mental ill health/a diagnosed mental health condition, a major life transition, relationship difficulties, grief and difficulty coping with every day stress are just some of the reasons people seek the help of a professional therapist.
  • Therapy is a waste of money when you could just speak to your friends or family. True, you could speak to your friends or family and it definitely is important to have supportive relationships with people you can trust. However, a therapist has training and experience that loved ones don’t and they are a neutral party capable of making objective observations because their relationship with you is not clouded by emotion.

When looking for a therapist/counsellor you should always seek someone who is fully qualified. In Ireland, qualified counsellors are accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. The IACP provide a directory of professionals on their website where you can search by location, see what each therapist specialises in and access their contact details.

*A counsellor/therapist may break confidentiality when required to do so by law or when they believe that a client may cause harm to themselves or others.

**To view the IACP Code of Ethics click here.

Need advice or help? Click here for a list of charities and organisations who could help. Alternatively, click ‘directory of professionals’ above to access a list of therapists in Ireland.

Best Apps For Dealing With Anxiety

The apps I find most helpful for dealing with anxiety.

Headspace

headspace
Source: headspace.com

Headspace is an app that provides short daily guided meditations. The app is free to download from the App Store and the Play Store. They offer a free Basics Pack, this provides you with all the essential tools you need to begin meditating in an easy listening, accessible way. If you want to access the full range of features you’ll have to pay a subscription, one month is $12.95 and one year works out at $7.99 per month – not a lot if you really will use it daily! Other packs on offer are geared towards helping you sleep, reducing stress, improving self esteem and more. You can also track all of your progress (data nerds rejoice!) I’ve been using Headspace before bed for a few months and I can definitely see the benefit of it. When I use it I sleep better, I’m calmer and as a result, more focused the following day.  I always thought I couldn’t quiet my mind enough to meditate but Headspace has changed my outlook.

I love hue

i love hue
Source: i-love-hue.com

I love hue is  described as ‘a gentle journey into colour and perception.’ It’s a visual game based on arranging tiles into colour spectrums. There is a ridiculous amount of levels in this game and they increase in difficulty as you play so you won’t get bored. It is so aesthetically pleasing and great for quieting the mind. I find this app great for when I’m feeling anxious! Free from both the App Store & The Play Store

Amazon Kindle

Amazon_Kindle_Fire_logo.svg

Available through a kindle reader, the amazon tablet or the smartphone app for free though you pay for most books. I’m a massive book nerd (check out 5 Books That Changed My Life here!) but I don’t have a whole lot of extra income to spend on books so this app is brilliant for me! Classic books are generally free, new books are slightly cheaper than print versions and Kindle Unlimited gives you access to hundreds of books every month for a flat fee of €7.99pm. I still buy physical copies of books but sometimes the Kindle is way easier. Travel can make me anxious but having a book to hand allows me to concentrate on something other than my racing thoughts, I also use it to read in bed because it’s easier to hold than a print book!

 

Mental Health or Mental Illness

​Are mental illnesses real? Is there a difference between mental health and mental illness? Does it have to be one or the other? Do we ‘suffer’ with mental health?

I’ve seen some discussion around this in recent months and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. There seem to be two main views when it comes to this argument. The first is that mental illness doesn’t actually exist but rather we’re all on a spectrum of mental health throughout our lives and should be treated as such. The second view that I’ve seen quite a lot of is that mental illness is very real, it should be treated with medication and if other people are saying they are having difficulties without a diagnoses they are being dramatic/they need to just get on with things/they should just man up.

I can only ever speak from the point of view as a service user, patient and someone with an interest in mental health so please don’t take my view as gospel, it’s just my personal opinion. I don’t fall in to either of the above camps. However, I think they both have some valid points. I agree that we are all on a spectrum of mental health but I think that mental illness is very much part of that spectrum and I agree that medication is often needed to treat mental illness but I don’t think it should be the only treatment.

There is a lot of stigma surrounding conversation about mental health and illness. We’ve gotten much better at speaking in statistics but we’re not so great at talking about the reality of either. Often times those who are struggling will carry that in silence for many reasons – fear of being treated differently, fear of a label, shame that they’re not doing better, etc. I think if we were more open to the idea of mental health as a spectrum this wouldn’t be such a big issue.

Here’s the thing – WE ALL HAVE MENTAL HEALTH. 

we-all-have-mental-health

We all have mental health and we all have it for the entirety of our lives, not just when times are difficult. I often hear people saying ‘I suffer with mental health’, is that the right way to phrase that? If we’re always saying we’re ‘suffering’ with mental health then mental health becomes something negative. It may seem like a trivial thing but when that’s all we’re seeing it becomes ingrained and before anyone has realised we’ve subconsciously associated mental health with something ‘bad’. 

I try to stay away from saying that I am ‘suffering with mental health.’ In conversation I will simply say that I’m not well in the exact same at that I would if I had a cough or cold. A majority of the time the person I’m conversing with will ask me in what way I feel unwell and I have no problem telling them ‘I’ve been feeling down lately/I’m really burnt out/I’m overwhelmed with anxiety right now.’ Was it a bit odd to answer so plainly initially? You bet it was! There were a couple of times that the person I was speaking to seemed taken aback and maybe a little unsure about how they should respond but now it’s become normal for myself, my friends & my family. It’s important to challenge the way we speak about mental health and illness. Now, we speak about mental health in the same way we speak about physical health. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘I have a headache’. 

And that makes much more sense, right?

Mental health is not something that is inherently bad or good, it simply is. We all have physical health that is on a spectrum and we do things to take care of it – go for check ups, eat well, exercise. We all have mental health, shouldn’t we treat it in the same way? The reality is that the majority of us don’t, we ignore it until there is a crisis.

Maybe if we had a shift in attitude towards our mental health we would then treat mental illness and crisis differently? Mental illnesses are very real and they need treatment just like any other illness needs treatment. To say that mental illnesses don’t exist undermines the work of thousands. It denies the reality of so many and takes away the relief felt when they finally get a diagnoses and treatment plan. Maybe if we treated mental health like physical health we would view a person with depression/anxiety/bipolar/etc in the same way we view a person with cancer/epilepsy/heart disease – with empathy and compassion, not fear, judgement and mistrust.

To me, it seems like we need to overhaul our attitudes. We need to recognise that everyone goes through tough times, that they may need emotional support but not necessarily require medication. We need to see that a lot of these people will not receive a clinical diagnoses but that doesn’t invalidate their experience. We also need to recognise that some people do have an illness, that they will receive a clinical diagnoses, that they need a treatment plan that is right for them and their experience is valid too.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

What are your thoughts? Do you think mental illnesses are real? Do you think mental health is a spectrum? Do you ltreat your mental health in the same way as your physical health? 

*World Health Organisation 

Need help? Want information? Click here

Mental Health & Illness Charities/Support – Ireland & UK

Need help? Want more information?

The following are Irish Mental Health or Illness charities/support services.

Don’t be afraid to contact someone or do some research – it’s why they’re there.

IRELAND

Mental Health Ireland – ‘MHI’s aim is to promote positive mental health and wellbeing to all individuals and communities in Ireland.’ A fantastic site for information, MHI even provide training to the public. MHI have Mental Health Associations around the country that you can contact for info or volunteer with.

Aware – ‘Aware undertakes to create a society where people affected by stress, depression, bipolar and mood disorders are understood, supported, free from stigma, and are encouraged to access appropriate therapies.’ Aware’s services include Support Mail, Support Groups & Support Line as well as online courses, group education and school based courses. All of these services are free.

Samaritans – ‘We offer a safe place for you to talk any time you like, in your own way – about whatever’s getting to you. You don’t have to be suicidal.’  Samaritans offers a phone support line for anyone who needs to talk. This a non judgmental space, the volunteer you speak to won’t impose their beliefs on you and they’re available every day, no matter the time.

Jigsaw – ‘The National Centre for Youth Mental Health. There to ensure that no young person (age 12-25) feels alone, isolated and disconnected from others around them’ Jigsaw has ‘hubs’ or drop in centres around the country. Here, young people can access support from trained staff, short term counselling, advice and information about other support services that may be of help to them. To find your local centre click the link!

Your Mental Health – ‘YourMentalHealth.ie is a place to learn about mental health in Ireland, and how to support yourself and the people you love.’ This HSE website provides a list of services, real life stories and a wealth of information. Your Mental Health are the folks behind the prominent #littlethings campaign.

See Change – ‘See Change is Ireland’s national programme working to change minds about mental health problems in Ireland…working to create a disruptive, community driven social movement to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health problems.’ See Change brings together 70+ organisations to work towards a common goal. On the site you’ll find sections the Green Ribbon Campaign, blogs from See Change Ambassadors and Mental Health in the workplace and lots more.

Pieta House – ‘We support people and communities in crisis by providing freely accessible, professional services to all.’ Pieta House have 12 centres around the country where service users can access support for issues around suicide and self harm. A doctor referral is not needed and the service is free. There is also a Freephone helpline and text service available. Pieta House are the folks behind ‘Darkness Into Light’ one of Ireland’s biggest mental health fundraisers that takes place every year.

A Lust For Life ‘A Lust For Life is…an Irish wellbeing movement created to transform how we talk about and treat mental health.’ ALFL aims to get us talking about our mental health and encourages mental fitness. This site is great for tips, articles and research around both mental and physical health. ALFL along with Pieta House are the folks behind #SoundEffect & The Little Book Of Sound.

UK

Centre For Mental Health – ‘We change the lives of people with mental health problems by using research to bring about better services and fairer policies.’  A fantastic site for information.

Mental Health Foundation – ‘Dedicated to finding and addressing the sources of mental health problems.’  Lots of information presented in a very user friendly way, clear guides and explanations.

Together‘We believe that people experiencing mental distress can direct their own journey towards improved mental health and to living independent, fulfilling lives. Our role is to give people the tools and the support to achieve this.’ Here you’ll find community, acommodation and criminal justice support along with along with research & guides.

Rethink Mental Illness – ‘We believe a better life is possible for millions of people affected by mental illness.’ Rethink can provide accredited advice & information to anyone affected by mental health problems. They also provide support groups and services and they campaign nationally for policy change.

Mind – ‘We won’t give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets support and respect.’ Mind campaign to raise awareness, promote understanding and improve services. They also provide advice and support to anyone who needs it.