Panic attacks: what they are and what to do about them
Panic attacks: what they are and what to do about them

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Panic attacks: what they are and what to do about them

1.3 Experience of panic disorder

So far you have learned about how mental health professionals define panic attacks and panic disorder. However, does the view taken by professionals match the views of those who receive a diagnosis of panic disorder? What is it actually like to have panic disorder? These are questions you will explore in the following activity.

Activity 3 What is it like to have panic disorder?

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

In the following audio you will hear as a panic expert, Psychologist Roger Baker, talks to three people who have struggled with panic attacks over the years. For all three, their experience of panic attacks has seriously blighted their life and, as such, they could be regarded as having panic disorder. Natalie is a retired teacher who is training to be a counsellor. Tim is a manager in a mental health facility and Alan is a trained chef who is currently not working. Although they are very different as individuals, the audio clearly reveals how seriously panic can affect anyone’s life. Listen to the following audio and then answer the question below.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1 The experience of panic
Skip transcript: Audio 1 The experience of panic

Transcript: Audio 1 The experience of panic

NATALIE
I just thought I was going mad –
TIM
Yeah – definitely
ALAN
Yeah – definitely
INTERVIEWER
You all thought you were going mad?
NATALIE
And also I felt a failure because I wasn’t coping – I felt I wasn’t coping with stuff, every day stuff that other people were seemingly coping with and I just felt a failure.
ALAN
More like you feel alone, actually
NATALIE
Yeah very –
INTERVIEWER
Yes it’s such a strange experience that you think it’s just me until you realise there’s thousands –
Hello I am Professor Roger Baker from Bournemouth University and we’re here in Bedford, in Mind Centre, to really try to explore panic attacks and what it’s all about and what it feels like, so that’s why we’ve asked you to be here, thank you very much for coming, Tim and Natalie and Alan. I want to ask you a question. This is perhaps to help people understand it. Now a lot of people say, oh yeah I felt panicky like before an exam I felt panicky. Now, is this the same as having a panic attack?
TIM
No –
ALAN
No
INTERVIEWER
You're all shaking your heads
TIM
I'm feeling a little bit anxious now but it’s nowhere near a panic attack. Panic attacks just – I feel they’ve got a life of their own. When they – when they start, they – it just builds and it builds and it’s completely – the word ‘detached’ is quite a good word I think because it’s detached from every other experience that I've had in life. They're very separate. They're very, very, very, very intense. They're very, almost sort of the instant version of long-term anxiety. It’s just all suddenly comes to a head whereas I suppose like using what you said some people feel panicky before an exam, that’s kind of a more anxious long term thing I think, whereas panic is very, very intense and in the moment.
INTERVIEWER
You seem to agree with that Natalie –
NATALIE
Yeah. I find it really debilitating. I can't physically get out of – once it takes hold, that’s it. I have strategies to try and reduce them once I feel them coming on but if its really bad then there's no stopping it and it just completely consumes you. If I move out of bed I am physically very sick. It’s like my body’s way of rejecting the anxiety, pushing it out. I can't get dressed. I can't do anything.
INTERVIEWER
So when Tim described it like it’s got a life of its own does that –
NATALIE
Definitely – yeah, definitely – and it’s really difficult for those who live with you to understand.
INTERVIEWER
What about yourself Alan – is it feeling panicky or is it something –
ALAN
No, it’s like an asthma attack.
INTERVIEWER
Right
ALAN
That is, because I've got asthma as well, so it’s very similar to an asthma attack. Not a lot of difference but your heart racing a bit more or – and your mind racing as well. Basically like you're going on a speed trip as well.
INTERVIEWER
So you can tell the difference between an asthma attack and a panic attack –
ALAN
Yes now I can. Panic attack has got feelings involved – you know what I mean by that?
INTERVIEWER
Emotions?
ALAN
Yeah and tearfulness and stuff –
INTERVIEWER
Which is worse?
ALAN
Panic attack–
INTERVIEWER
Panic attack?
ALAN
Yeah. With an asthma attack you can take three or four puffs and it will go away, with a panic attack it don’t.
End transcript: Audio 1 The experience of panic
Audio 1 The experience of panic
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What do Tim, Natalie and Alan say about their experience of panic attack?

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Discussion

Tim, Natalie and Alan talk about physical sensations, like feeling that your heart is racing, or feeling physically sick. They also talk about the negative feelings (tearfulness) and thoughts (‘I am going mad’, I am a failure’) that come up when they have a panic attack.

Now listen to the next two short audio clips, with Tim talking about his first ever panic attack and Natalie talking about a panic attack she had in a department store.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 2 Tim’s first panic attack
Skip transcript: Audio 2 Tim’s first panic attack

Transcript: Audio 2 Tim’s first panic attack

TIM
Okay. So the first panic attack was at work. So circumstantially I was – I was sitting at my desk – I was working in a call centre selling mobile phones at the time and there was a group – the team was around me. There was a lull in the phone calls so we were all talking. And I was probably holding people’s attention with what I was saying and about half way through I completely forgot what I was saying and then I couldn’t remember what came next and then it just sort of – like I say it took on a life of its own. Obviously at the time my adrenaline was shooting up. I couldn’t get my words out. I felt people were looking at me. So there's a sense of – there's a sense sort of responsibility a little bit of humiliation I suddenly can't remember what I'm doing. Started to feel silly. Started to feel a bit odd and then it all just – it’s almost like it’s just like this fountain that just sort of wells up and it sounds dramatic but it just – it becomes uncontrollable –
It’s really strange because it probably only lasts I imagine it’s like a ten second, twenty second experience for everyone else but it feels like its lasting days when its inside. Everything slows down. I just froze. I completely froze because I didn’t know what was happening. I couldn’t get words out. I had a room full of people that I probably wanted people’s respect, attention. I don't know. So none of this is on your mind – not on our minds when we’re talking but when a panic attack comes in it, the fact that you are after attention and respect it all seems to come into the equation. Does that make any sense? Suddenly everything seems to matter and everything seems to be important. You can't think. It snowballs. This is important. That’s important. You need to be doing this. You should be doing that. You’ve got to get out. There’s a hundred thoughts that come in at that particular time and you can't – you can't hold on to one because the next one comes and it's slightly more important than the last one and it just becomes really difficult to cope with. But what I did – the only memory of it I have is freezing. Being 21 – being a 21-year-old man I laughed it off and kind of you know said I don’t know what happened and had a laugh with my friends but it did shock me and I know afterwards as well, I feel quite exhausted after a panic attack. It changes my day. If I have a panic attack I'm not gonna have a good day afterwards.
End transcript: Audio 2 Tim’s first panic attack
Audio 2 Tim’s first panic attack
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Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 3 Natalie’s panic attack
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Transcript: Audio 3 Natalie’s panic attack

NATALIE
What's come to mind is a time, can't remember exactly which year it was, but it was about 2008, something like that and I tried to kid myself that I was okay and I had it all planned out because that’s the way that helps me deal with my panic is if I know where I'm going, what time, who I'm likely to see and how I’ll exit the situation. That’s one of the ways that reduces my panic. I convinced myself that I was okay to do a tiny bit of Christmas shopping that year and my dad was going to drive me into town. I knew exactly which three shops I was going to and then my mum was going to pick me up. And I landed in town. It was just overwhelming. I can't put it into words. It was just – it was too much. All the people coming at me. I had someone come at me wanting to sell me a Big Issue and I just couldn’t deal with the people. It just overwhelmed me. And I remember I literally ran – which was quite embarrassing – into Debenhams and threw up in the toilets. And I'd only been in town five minutes. And I was shaking like a leaf. I couldn’t speak properly and I remember, still in the toilet cubicle, I just rang my mum and just said come and get me and she was like, what? What's wrong – what's wrong with you? But yeah my legs were like jelly and it was almost like everything was in slow motion happening around me. It was just a haze.

End transcript: Audio 3 Natalie’s panic attack
Audio 3 Natalie’s panic attack
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Tim and Natalie provide of their experience of panic attacks. What for you stands out most?

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Discussion

Different people will notice different things in Tim and Natalie’s response but one thing that may stand out is how overwhelming the experience of a panic attack is – intense, impossible to stop once it gets going and exhausting afterwards.

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