WORLD MENTAL HEALTH DAY: The day my panic attacks stopped

Today is World Mental Health Day. The purpose of a day like this is to shed a more positive light on mental health. A lot of work has been done in this area but there is still a stigma attached to living with the challenges mental health can throw at you.

In a bid to shed a positive light and help raise awareness, I thought I might share my own story.

For the last few years of my marriage, I was hiding behind a facade of ‘perfection’. Only a couple of people (a close friend and my therapist) knew the real story of what was happening behind the scenes of the perfect suburban marriage we were presenting to the world.

It wasn’t long before I started to have episodes of heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, clammy hands, a sensation of numbness in various parts of my body, dizziness, breathlessness and that sinking feeling that if I didn’t sit or lie down (usually lying down on something cold helped me – I spent a fair bit of time on tiled floors!), I would pass out.

Now, our family has a history of heart problems that comes down the maternal line. My mother, cousin and uncle have all been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation which is a type of abnormal heart rhythm. Symptoms include dizziness, heart palpitations, tiredness and weakness. And I tell you, after each of these episodes I would have to sleep. I would feel like a bus had hit me.

So off I went to the cardiologist. We made the assumption that this was a physical abnormality. The fact that these symptoms could have been caused by a mental health problem didn’t even enter my head.

Guess what? Hundreds of dollars and loads of tests later, it turned out my heart was just fine.

In the meantime, I threw complementary medicine at the problem – magnesium, special concoctions my kinesiologist created for me, but still these episodes came. Sometimes they were upon me before I knew it. Other times, it was a long, slow burn and I would lie down on a tiled floor in preparation, safe in the knowledge that if I did pass out, I wouldn’t hurt myself.

Okay, I’ll just manage whatever this is, I thought. Still thinking it was a physical problem that the doctors couldn’t quite put their finger on.

It will be fine.

I will be fine.

Then why the fuck don’t I feel fine?

During one episode on holiday overseas, I ended up with a low blood pressure reading of 90 over 60 and on a drip in hospital!

Yet, still, the penny (no pun intended) did. not. drop.

Until my marriage ended (a year ago today, ironically!).

Do you think I’ve had an episode since?

None. No heart palpitations. No dizziness. No low blood pressure. Nada. Nothing. I had convinced myself that my ‘undiagnosed heart condition’ had simply gone away.

Until I read an article about panic attacks online.

Boom! The symptoms were the same as what I had experienced.

Lifeline Australia lists causes of panic attacks on their website:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Stress
  • Reaction to a traumatic event
  • Physical illness
  • Anxiety sensitivity – tendency for a person to fear anxiety-related bodily sensations

Hmmmmm…I had experienced 3 out of 5 on that list. Perhaps my undiagnosed heart condition was actually not an undiagnosed heart condition at all! Perhaps living in complete misalignment to my values and trying to squash the truth of my life and my marriage down bubbled up into panic attacks.

Perhaps I haven’t experienced a panic attack since my marriage breakdown because now I am living a life of authenticity and am away from the source of the stress and trauma.

But why hadn’t I experienced these episodes in the past year of my life – the TOUGHEST year of my life – as I renovated and sold the family home, found a rental home in a village two hours away for myself and my sons to move to, navigated legal and financial settlements and cried my eyes out?

How come I would sit on the floor and sob for hours but no episodes would appear?

The only way I can explain it, personally for me (remember everyone is different and this is my take on my own personal situation) is that even though I was grieving the end of a marriage and the annihilation of what I thought my future would be, it was the right way forward.

Separating and grieving and healing and moving on – it was all right. It was how it was meant to be.

I didn’t have to pretend anymore. Finally, people knew that as much as I loved my husband and as much as he loved me, we were living a lie. A lie, as it turns out, that neither of us could sustain physically, emotionally OR mentally.

And so I encourage you today to head to the 10/10 website or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you are struggling. If you have experienced these same sorts of symptoms and have been confused by them or too scared to reach out and let people know you are experiencing panic attacks, call these guys or make an appointment with a mental health professional. Or even as a starting point, chat to a friend or family member and let them know what you’re going through. It will help.

And I wish for you to live authentically, recapture your power and stake your claim on your very own future, however different that may look to the one you had originally envisaged.

You got this.

And we’ve got you.

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