Panic Attacks

The Panic Station , 6 November 2015

Panic / This Is How I Do It

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Those of you who read about the peripatetic life that I’ve carved out for myself may be surprised to hear this: I’m chronically agoraphobic, with a side of panic disorder.

I was first given a name for my episodes of feeling in the grip of a mental hurricane when I was 14 – it’s since embedded itself in my personality, influencing my proclivities and often curtailing my enjoyment of weddings/parties/holidays/anywhere with a gathering of people.

Etymologically, the word agoraphobia means fear of the market place – busy spaces, an excess of people, the lack of a clear escape path and rigid social situations (theatres, assemblies, meetings etc.) often trigger episodes of panic or heightened anxiety in sufferers. Agoraphobia and panic disorder therefore usually go hand in hand, two little devils co-conspiring to tip fun events into exhausting episodes of vigilance for fear that ‘it’ may happen.

You may, rightly I think, wonder why someone who in the grip of such a fear, decided to devote part of their working life to travel writing. My answer is this: I do not wish to yield to my fears. Writing about travel is as much about my love of writing and travel as it is about my promise to myself not to quite literally limit my horizons – my unfounded fears about ‘bad things that may happen’ if left unchecked and unchallenged only, in my experience, spiral out of control. Pushing myself to get on crowded planes with strangers and then spend days being ‘professional’ while miles from my safe home may be exceedingly difficult at times, but it is better than the alternative, where my world would start to fold in at the corners, gradually becoming smaller and smaller with the passing of years.

A little about my version of agoraphobia (do not be fooled by google definitions, all phobias are as vastly different as the personalities to whom they’ve attached themselves): I need to have water wherever I go – I feel without it those aforementioned ‘bad things’ may happen; I keep my panic at bay when incommunicado (tube/plane/battery-less – damn you, iPhone 5s) by engaging others in mad and usually bad conversation; I like to sit at the end of the row in a theatre or cinema lest I need to leave, and I endlessly scan anywhere I am for exits and loos. The things I do are called coping strategies by experts, I call them good sense. Loos, exits and water = vital, no? Yes. But not all the time. Every minute. Not in the way I rely on it.

What happens when panic descends upon me? You imagine hyperventilation, I’m sure. A paper bag over the mouth, perhaps, in order to stem breathing that has accelerated (this is what people who don’t suffer often think panic attacks look like – I blame American sitcoms.) No. Not in my case. I seem entirely normal and carry on twittering away while inwardly racing the periphery of my brain like a hamster in a cage: ‘how do I escape? Where do I go? How will I excuse myself?’ Ad infinitum.

You may also be curious about the process of how panic flares up. Once again, I’d like to steer the uninitiated away from the Hollywood version – I don’t get stressed when it’s appropriate. I am surprisingly cool under extreme pressure and when faced with personal tragedy. I’ve never had hot tears roll down my face at a funeral, I’ve worked to deadlines without so much as a single extra beat to my heart’s usual rhythm, I’ve walked away from men I’ve loved deeply without a moment of weakness or hesitation.

So, what then? Why the panic? For me (and I stress the personal element) it’s a delayed trigger. I internalise anything that seems a stretch, and the panic comes only when several stresses become too much. I don’t know why or how or when any more than an outsider – it just suddenly is. Any of this extra stress is then exacerbated by the situation – a cinema may not be the cause of my panic, but if I’m feeling a bit wobbly, being in one will often make things worse.

Your final question is, I’m sure, why am I writing this? First, because I’d like to offer myself up to anyone suffering similarly: you will get control, it will end, you will go to the ball (even if you have to scan exits as soon as you get there). More widely, obstacles are merely that. I am an agoraphobe who travels to review hotels. Surely that proves the sheer power of will can overcome anything?

This section is therefore as much for my musings on mental illness/wellness as it is to discuss panic in an open manner for anyone to whom it’s of interest and – hopefully – a place for fellow panickers to come and wave every now and then…

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  • anastacia says:

    Hi Madeline.
    Thank you for sharing. I’m just about to venture into blogging (organic/natural skincare)and saw your blog during my research. Your story prompted me to write to you as I am also a sufferer of panic attacks, anxiety, agoraphobic, therefore fear of travel etc.. and fear of fear! I thought I was food poisoned the first time I had a panic attack as I was sitting in a restaurant and immediately had to run to the loo as my body gave in and I felt like vomiting with immediate bowel motion. The shock horror of a life was just about to begin…It was about 2 years ago (2014) and while I’ve managed to slowly get behind the wheel and drive again, it is only to my parents house where I feel safe and comfortable and which is not too far. When I get a panic attack, it feels like all my nerves are in spasms and I cannot even handle being in my own body let alone travel to even go home! It is horrible and I feel my life has been stolen from me. I loved to travel and now I cannot even go to the airport.
    I am a skincare creator and am passionate about organic skincare. I have much knowledge to share and am lucky enough to be able to create in my own private space as I can barely travel. I do not know what I would do if I didnt have this passion to keep me occupied. Although many people would like the more positives of life written, I appreciate you sharing your story which then enabled me to briefly share mine too for the very first time. Hopefully this is a condition that will completely pass one day and we are able to re-claim our lives back again.
    Love and Hope
    Anastacia x

    • Mads says:

      Hi Anastacia,
      Many thanks for writing such an honest comment and I’m so very sorry to hear that you’re suffering so much, though cheered that skincare has brought you such joy.
      Are you seeing anyone about it? In my experience, CBT can be very helpful at slightly adjusting parameters (so you’d be more able to go further from your house etc) and a good psychologist invaluable.
      I have every faith that I – and you – can beat anxiety with perseverance and a little help along the way. Please do feel keep me updated with how you’re getting on and if you have any questions please do send them my way – I’m a pro after suffering on and off for so long! xx

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