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"I kept imagining having a panic attack whilst teaching"

Katie from Portsmouth describes how the power of perseverance and maintaining hope helped her conquer the fear of panic attacks.

When I was in my twenties, my life had a big change. I went from being a laid-back, relaxed girl, to developing an intense anxiety disorder. 

When I first starting having panic attacks, they were a daily battle and I felt quite disabled by them for 18 months. I spent my time trying to avoid situations which made me feel any emotion, because whenever I had reason to feel curious, excited or surprised by something, it would spark a sudden panic attack. I was really frightened of the next panic attack happening and dreaded each one coming.

For a few years, I was trying to persevere and continue with things but trying to work and trying to socialise was still very hard as I anticipated the next panic attack with much fear. 

The most helpful thing for me, was reading about perseverance. It was a Bible verse that ended up really resonating with me: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

The great thing about perseverance, is that it is so strengthening to be able to prove to yourself what you can achieve... even when you had little expectation of managing.

A therapist taught me a slow deep breathing method which was extremely helpful. I look at a clock or a watch and spend five seconds taking in a long slow deep breath. Then, I spend five seconds breathing out slowly and deeply. If you repeat this, it can halve your heart rate in just twenty seconds. It helped me to have the slow deep breathing to concentrate on when my heart was racing with anxiety.

When I was starting to manage working again, I applied to go back to university as I had wanted to train to be an English teacher. I was given a place for the teacher training course as I had hoped. This course included two nine week placements to work in a school. When I was given my placements, although I was happy to be there, I kept feeling anxious when planning lessons to teach as I kept imagining my ‘worse case scenario’ would be me having a panic attack in front of a class while teaching. Each day, I dreaded that happening. 

One day, I was teaching a group of teenagers and I started feeling panicky up in front of the class. I took a long slow deep breath, remembering the words I had read about perseverance and tried to carry on. 

At the end of the lesson, the teacher who had been observing me came over to me. I was expecting that she would have noticed that I had been struggling, but instead, she was full of praise and said how well she thought that lesson had gone. It was a panic attack I actually felt grateful for because it enabled me to prove to myself what I could manage, and that my worse case scenario was nothing to be frightened of. 

Sometimes panic attacks come on at a time that someone is kind of expecting, and sometimes they arrive very suddenly and completely unexpectedly. The thing which has made a massive difference for me, is no longer dreading the next one. Knowing that I can manage and carry on, remembering how I have persevered, means that now I can make plans and anticipate how I can manage them. Even though I still occasionally have panic attacks, they do not hold me back anymore, because I am no longer frightened of the next one.

I had spent a few years feeling scared of big social occasions and expecting painful anxiety whenever situations made me feel emotional or excited. I finally knew I had hit a major milestone in managing my anxiety when in 2012, I was able to thoroughly enjoy my wedding day, without a panic attack.

The only thing which I found embarrassing on our wedding day, was in my Dad’s ‘father of the bride’ speech, when he shared with everyone a memory he had of me being an eight year old child and one Saturday while in Burger King, asking him for advice on how to choose a husband...I blame Disney!

Getting married and within a few years giving birth twice, without panic attacks, now makes me feel like I could try for anything. Persevering with anxiety does depend on a couple of things:

Firstly, maintaining hope that you can feel better. You can make progress and you will learn to feel really peaceful again. Secondly, maintaining self esteem. You are worth trying for. Persevering with anxiety is hard work and it can be exhausting, but knowing that your efforts are worthwhile is important. 

I went to a talk once with a mental health charity and the speaker did a brilliant thing with a ten pound note. He held the tenner out and said, “Please put up your hand if you’d like this.” Everyone put their hand up. He folded it a few times and then asked again, “Please put up your hand if you’d like this.” Each hand went up again. Then he put it on the floor and trod over the money with his shoe. He then picked it up, unravelled it and asked again who would like it. When each hand went up for the last time, he said, “Remember, no matter how down-trodden you feel in life, you have never lost your value.”

It was just what I needed to hear when I was trying to make a fresh start with things. Let your attempts to persevere have a fresh start each day. Try not to feel put down by unsuccessful moments.

I have one more experience of perseverance which was memorable for me. When I was a child, my family lived in Guildford, which was a very happy chapter of my life. We moved out of Guildford when I was thirteen years old and afterwards I always loved going back to visit there. But when I was in my twenties, during a time of really suffering with my anxiety, I was visiting when one day when I had an intense panic attack. I was in Guildford High Street; one of my favourite places. Even though it is a beautiful, peaceful place, my panic attack made it feel like the scene of a horror film. 

I cut my visit short and I rushed home. I felt sad that one of my favourite places had felt so uncomfortable for me. I was given some good advice by a friend afterwards when I told them about my day. My friend said, “Go back to Guildford again soon, so that nasty experience does not become your dominant memory of the town.” I understood what he meant, because there were places I was reluctant to visit because I associated them with memories of having panic attacks. 

So I went back to Guildford. On the train there, I tried to focus on my happy memories of being there. I did feel sensitive and expect that I might feel panicky again when I returned to the High street. But instead, I had a really lovely day.  It was happy, peaceful and I was proud that I allowed myself to be there again and capture new, positive memories.

Anxiety does often make us quickly imagine and expect the worst situations, but I've found that perseverance, can and will, enable us to prove ourselves wrong. Let feelings of hope to grow. Try to be kind to yourself in simple ways - I always made my favourite dinner after my most difficult days! 

Give yourself credit for your attempts. They are all very valuable. 

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