Overcoming Anxiety and
Panic Attacks - My Story
by Sue Breton
Overcoming anxiety and panic attacks is the most wanted goal of many, yet so many fail to achieve it.
This page tells about my own anxieties from the age of ten when I had my first panic attack, right up until my early thirties. In the intervening years I had developed many tricks which allowed me to get by - most of the time. But then one day finding myself housebound with an acute anxiety state I was finally forced to sort myself out. Used the theoretical knowledge I'd gained from becoming a clinical psychologist and relating that to my own first-hand experiences I worked out how to get rid of excessive anxiety for good.
I consider myself very fortunate to have had my problems with anxiety because, without them, I wouldn't have gained the degree of insight and understanding which now enables me to teach others how to overcome their own anxiety-related difficulties.
1. Sowing the Seeds for My Panic Triggers
Looking back I can see that my particular panic triggers were initially created by a series of unfortunate events in my early childhood.
The earliest relevant event was when I was only a toddler of about 18 months old. I am told that someone had knocked at the door and, as usual, I was running to the door after my mother to see who it was. My grandmother was visiting and took it upon herself to try and stop me. In doing so I fell over and hit my head on the iron fender which ran around the edge of the fireplace. I don't recall that part.
What I do recall, however, is sitting in the bath in about 6 ins of red water and crying in fear. My mother had put me in the bath to try and control the bleeding but was only succeeding in colouring the water. In those days most people didn't have cars and GPs came to the house. I suppose my mother managed to put a plaster on my head or something (probably my grandmother took over) but I had a scar in the middle of my forehead until my twenties when it gradually faded. My mother was never very good around accidents and tended to be squeamish.
The next, and most significant, panic trigger incident was when I was 5 years old and recovering from whooping cough. We were playing a board game - myself, my mother, my grandmother and my 3 year old sister. I was sitting on a small wooden folding stool which I often used. I must've got excited or something and jumped up and down causing the stool to fold itself trapping one finger on each hand. It's strange that even as I write this I still feel slightly queasy at the memory.
I recall being held at the kitchen sink with my fingers under the cold tap, watching the red water and screaming. I suppose my grandmother put bandages on, I don't recall that bit.
The next day the doctor called to treat me. Prior to that my father had removed the bandages which were stuck -that memory alone was sufficient to act as a panic trigger for many years.
The doctor said I should have had stitches but it was now too late. I had complicated dressings put on my fingers which had to be changed daily.
My father worked in London and never got home at night until I was in bed. In that era he would not have been able to have time off to look after a child as that was the wife's job.
My mother was too squeamish to change the dressings daily herself. I was, therefore, dispatched to stay at my Uncle's for a couple of weeks.
My Uncle had worked on the ambulances in the army during the war and was well able to cope with my minor injuries. I don't think I had ever stayed overnight with my Uncle and Aunt before and my Uncle was not someone who easily related to children. So I spent two weeks feeling homesick and longing to go home.
When I was 8 years old I managed to lodge a large splinter down between my finger and my fingernail whilst sliding my hand along a wooden bench at school. Again my mother took me this time to the surgery. The GP decided to try and remove it but he had run out of whatever they used to numb the area, so decided to do it anyway.
After several minutes of futile attempts, prodding at it, much screaming and squirming on my part, he told my mother to leave it and see if it grew out with my nail - which it did, thankfully. But elements of the experience were recorded by my survival instinct as future panic triggers.
None of the above was in any way life threatening or even serious, but to the small child who experienced them along with the fear and pain, they made their mark. I noticed that I had developed a kind of blood phobia and would tend to feel faint if I saw any sort of accident, or even someone with bandages over a wound, although I always managed to stop myself passing out completely.
2. My First Panic Attack
My first panic attack happened when I was 10 years old. I was a pupil at a private school although I'd spent the first three years of my education in the state system where there were some 52 children in my class and I used to pass the days in a haze of not really knowing what was going on.
School assembly happened each morning in the largest classroom. The more senior your class, the nearer the back of the room you stood. I was one class from the top - what would now be called Year 6 - so was standing at the very back, furthest from the door which was at the front of the room.
A girl in Year 5 had a lazy eye so her eyelid had been sewn down over the good one to make the lazy one do more work (or so I was led to believe at the time).
She returned to school wearing a patch over the closed eye. Standing behind her that first morning in assembly my brain - which was already primed to focus on trauma etc - began to imagine how the operation had been done.
It wasn't long before the images in my own head started to make me feel faint. I groped my way towards the door, probably white as a sheet, and was taken out by staff and made to sit on the floor with my head between my knees. The panic subsided and I returned to class.
The next morning, needless to say, once assembly began my head set off in the same direction and I came over faint again and had to leave. When this happened for the third or fourth time the teachers were becoming less sympathetic and started telling me off when I left assembly rather than being comforting. This only heightened my fear of having the attacks which inevitably fuelled them.
I started refusing to go to school. I tried to explain to my mother and asked her to say that I wasn't to go into assembly as that was the only problem area at that time. After much insistence on my part, and many stomach aches which I used as an excuse to avoid school, she agreed.
After the first panic attack, my survival instinct had learnt to remind me of them in any situation it considered similar to school assembly. This generalised to being in church and, later, came to apply to any situation in which I found myself from which I didn’t think I could easily escape.
3. Growing Up with Panic Attacks
Because of my panics, which she didn’t appear to understand despite my explaining them to her as best I could, my mother asked me if I wanted to talk to our next-door neighbour, a psychiatrist. I always refused because I was well aware that it was the pictures in my own head which were starting the panics and what could he possibly do to change them? I knew all along that it was down to me but I just had to work out what to do about it.
As my survival instinct was associating school assembly with panicking and it felt as if it was forcing me to think gory thoughts whenever it found me there, it also decided that any form of worship e.g. in church, was the same.
I used to go to church with the family every Sunday. Soon I was feeling faint in church.
In the beginning concerned others would follow me out and fuss over me. I hated that.
In time, because it happened so regularly, I taught them that I would sort myself out and they just let me get on with it.
It never occurred to me to stop going to church to avoid having the panics, I always focused my efforts on trying to stop them happening rather than on avoiding having them.
When I left my junior school, where I had been excused assembly for the last year, and went to grammar school, I knew that I couldn't wimp out of assembly. I told myself it would be ok and that I wouldn't generally panic. Fortunately at this school we were made to sit on the floor for the greater part of it. I had been told by the wife of our psychiatrist neighbour (who was a nurse) that you couldn't faint of you were sitting down.
For several years I believed this and it got me through the first few years at grammar school. I didn't have to cope for the whole of assembly, only the bits when we were standing up. Added to this was the fact that in the first year we were at the front of the hall and arranged in height order. I was one of the shortest in the class so I was near the end of the row as well.
I promised myself that during my seven years at that school there would be times when I would need to leave the hall, but that I must save these for when they were really necessary. I think that during those seven years I only left three times and each was when the headmistress had brought us news of a pupil who had been involved in an accident of some kind.
Teens and Twenties
During my teens the panics generalised so that they would happen at any time or place when I started thinking I couldn't escape, or not without making people notice etc. I wouldn't sit on the inside seat of rows at the cinema or theatre.
There were periods in my life when they tended to happen, or threaten to happen, more often than others. If I had a new crush on a boy, for instance, this would tend to take precedence in my head and the panicky thoughts got relegated. If I was worried about things then they would be more likely to jump in. I did learn some tricks for blocking them out by making myself think other things but it didn't always work. Mostly, however, I went through my teens and twenties managing to cope on the whole.
I recall attending a conference in London when I was about 23. I was with a colleague and we were using the Underground. I warned her in advance that should I start to feel panicky I would get off at the next station, compose myself and then get back on the next train. I used to view this as an inconvenience as opposed to a big deal.
One area where my anxiety attacks did lead me to take avoiding action rather than to face them was when I was driving. Living in South Wales but with my family in Surrey, I often had to drive between the two either on my own or with some of the children. I was always afraid of coming across an accident on the motorway.
If I were to be held up in a traffic jam due to an accident, my head would start imagining all manner of unpleasant scenes, causing me to start to feel faint. If I were the only person in the car capable of driving, it would be extremely embarrassing to feel faint and be unable to drive. The result of this was that when driving on the motorway if I found myself approaching a queue, unless I knew for certain it was only roadworks, I would pull off the motorway. I must have driven miles out of my way over the years in order to avoid driving past something which might have been an accident.
I don't recall most of these events with any degree of emotion, neither good nor bad. They were simply what happened and, regardless of what I think about them now, nothing can change that. There are, however, some instances which make me smile when I look back, although I didn't find them funny at the time. My all-time classic was the time my husband took me to dinner where Lulu was the cabaret act. This time I really cut off my nose to spite my face and I still regard it as the culmination of my skills as a panicker.
4. Panicking on my Special Night Out
I did my best not to let my panicking habit get in the way. I have always hated being controlled by anyone or anything not of my own choosing. All the more reason then why this one incident stands out in my memory as being particularly irritating – yet quite funny in retrospect.
My husband organised a treat for me. I'd always wanted to go out to dinner and see a cabaret but had never managed it. I can't recall if this was a birthday or anniversary treat but Lulu was booked to appear at a local nightspot. Knowing that I was a fan of the singer, my husband booked us a table.
I tended not to go out to dinner in those days because I knew it was very likely I would trigger an anxiety attack as soon as it occurred to me it was inconvenient to leave. At someone's house that could make me feel stupid, in a restaurant my husband would not be amused. But he’d booked this meal and cabaret as a special treat so I promised myself I’d be ok.
We arrived at the club and were shown to our table, right at the edge of the stage! I worked at keeping my thoughts on the food and the surroundings to avoid the messages from my survival instinct about panicking. We had our meal and Lulu's performance was drawing nearer. I found myself wondering whether Lulu was feeling anxious about coming onstage and thinking that if a performer felt panicky how would they cope...?
I started to feel a bit light-headed, my ears started to ring, so I did what I usually did in those circumstances and went to the ladies toilet to compose myself.
I shut myself in a cubicle, sat down, breathed slowly and told myself it was fine. I must've been there some five or ten minutes. I went back to the table and found myself worrying for Lulu all over again - so back to the toilets a second time.
I was now getting a bit anxious as well about how quickly I composed myself as Lulu might be onstage at any moment. I wanted to get my head straight because I couldn't leave if I felt panicky during the performance itself.
I returned to the table for a second time but no sooner there than the panicky feeling came again, faster than previously (of course it did because I was effectively training it to do just that).
Anyway whilst in the toilet for the third time, Lulu started her act. Now I couldn't go back to the table because it was right beside the stage. So I had to watch as best I could from behind the door of the ladies toilet - the entire performance!
When Lulu left the stage and I returned sheepishly to the table my husband was very disappointed and somewhat annoyed that his special treat had degenerated into this and said as much! This to me was the most disappointed I'd ever been with myself on account of my panicking habit. It must've been 1980 or thereabouts.
In early 1981 events in my life pushed my anxieties so far that I lapsed into an Acute Anxiety State during which I found myself battling to keep almost constant panics at bay. At this time I was left with no choice but to sort my act out once and for all - which I did.
5. My Acute Anxiety State
An Acute Anxiety State is often referred to as a ‘nervous breakdown’ or, more technically, as an Acute Anxiety Disorder. Boredom, although usually regarded as negative low arousal, can sow the seeds of negative raised arousal. The months leading up to my own crunch time were characterised by a degree of boredom and restlessness.
I was raising five children, three stepchildren and two of my own. The eldest was fourteen years older than the youngest. At this time the youngest had not started school so my days were spent looking after the home, cooking, shopping, caring for the younger ones and then my evenings were busy taking the older ones to ballet classes etc. I had little time to settle down to anything significant for myself and used to use spare moments to make lists, do odd jobs, or watch TV.
In autumn 1980, two of the children left home - one to go to university and the other to become a pupil at ballet school. This made a big hole in my usual evening activities. I recall that at that time there was a dearth of good programmes on TV in the evenings.
Having spent several years with little time for myself at all, suddenly some had appeared and I just didn't know what to do with it because it was still too little to really get stuck into anything but too much to do nothing.
I was restless, my usual ways of being had been disrupted, and this was raising my arousal level generally in a negative direction.
On Boxing Day 1980 I received a phone call saying that two close friends had just been killed in a car accident. The fact that this happened at Christmas seemed to make it feel worse. This information added itself to the disruption I was already experiencing and brewed for another couple of months.
Then in mid February I had to drive alone to Surrey. On the Friday my mother and my sister and her family were moving out of their respective houses and moving into one bigger house which they would share. I was to help with the move and the next day collect my stepdaughter from her school and drive her home for half term.
When I arrived, after a two and a half hour drive on the motorway, everything was chaotic. (Remember the survival instinct doesn't like the new, different and unexpected as it can't predict the outcome so raises the arousal to look for danger.)
I was greeted by my sister who immediately told me about a very minor injury which my 11 month old niece had suffered earlier that day. In my already negatively aroused state after the drive and the chaos, this just added fuel to the fire.
We did the move and that night I went to bed on a makeshift bed in a strange room with fabric draped across the windows as curtains. That was the final straw for my survival instinct. I started to panic. In those days I used to carry diazepam with me only to use in emergencies when I couldn't calm down by myself. I usually took 2mg but this time I had to take 10mg before it had any effect and sent me to sleep.
In the morning, still feeling wobbly and anxious, I drove to collect my stepdaughter and started the long drive back down the motorway. I kept the window open all the way (in February) because that somehow helped me to keep the panic at bay and fortunately my stepdaughter talked constantly so that distracted me somewhat as well.
When I arrived home my two youngest children apparently ran up to greet me but I brushed past them, went upstairs and threw myself down on the bed, my head spinning and my ears ringing. I had effectively lapsed into an Acute Anxiety State.
From that point on I used to struggle to get through days at home on my own without panicking. I refused to let my husband stay home because I knew that if I became dependant it would be so much harder to get back. He was good, however, and would come home early or call in if I asked - but I only asked once or twice.
My husband was a psychiatrist. He used to ask me if there was anything he could do to help, but there wasn't. I knew that it was down to me. I had all the knowledge and the skills and now I had to walk the talk. I remember telling him that I was going to get something positive out of the experience no matter what. And I did. I proved what did and didn't work.
6. Overcoming My Acute Anxiety State
I was determined to use this experience to discover a reliable way of overcoming acute anxiety.
First of all I followed my theory that the arousal system had got stuck at high. Therefore I needed to bring the baseline level down. I also noticed that I started to feel more panicky each time I started thinking beyond the present moment, even if it was just, "What if I don't feel well enough to get the tea ready?"
My ability to concentrate was terrible but I kept watching snippets of TV programmes that used to interest me as long as there was no violence or operations etc in them.
I didn't watch the news. Every time I caught my thoughts wandering ahead of time I would focus back on what I was actually doing in the here and now. I used to focus on chores, the ironing, peeling potatoes, anything to stay in the here and now.
I didn't dare leave the house alone in case I had a panic attack. I persuaded my mother to come and stay for a week.
During that time I practised walking to our village shop each day, with the youngest in the buggy, and keeping my mind on what was around me, the trees, the birds, anything. My mother had to walk a few paces behind so that I could pretend she wasn't there because she was back up. By the time she went home I was starting to feel more confident in doing it alone.
From time to time a reminder of our forthcoming family holiday to Disneyworld, Florida would pop into my head. We had saved for this trip for over two years and were due to go that summer. The family couldn't go without me as I'd made all the arrangements and I was needed to drive the car. The thought of being on a plane for ten or more hours during that February was panic inducing on its own, let alone doing it!. I knew I couldn't afford to even think about it. Whenever the thought jumped in I'd tell myself I'd worry about that when the time came.
Gradually, doing the best I could with each hour at a time and not thinking beyond it, I managed to bring my arousal level back down over the next two months. When July came I was able to get on that plane to Florida. As I entered the plane and sat down my head said, "What if I panic, I can't get off!" I knew that I didn't want to go down that road and spend the entire journey battling at trying to keep panics at bay. I let go of the thought and focused instead on what was good about being able to relax in my seat and just watch the film or read magazines.
I know now that the approach I was using was a form of Mindfulness but this was long before Jon Kabat Zinn's book "Full Catastrophe Living" had introduced the idea to the general public. Despite overcoming acute anxiety I still had a bit of work to do on my panic attacks when I came across accidents etc. They were much better but still came sometimes. Then one day I discovered the final piece of the jigsaw.
7. Overcoming My Panic Attacks
For many years the idea of overcoming panics for me simply meant either keeping them at bay with some sort of distraction technique (which didn’t always work), or getting rid of the dizziness and ringing in my ears as quickly as I could. I had no idea how to stop them happening at all. My Acute Anxiety State had come and gone, but my occasional panics remained.
My moment of truth in relation to my panic attacks came one day when I went to have a wisdom tooth removed. The dentist had promised me an injection of something that would stop me caring what he was doing after I'd explained that my imagination might get the better of me during the extraction and cause me to feel faint and panic. This helped - now I only had to worry about the period before I had the injection.
In the waiting room beforehand, however, before having the magic injection, I found my thoughts turning to what was going to happen. I then decided I just didn't want to go through my usual process of keeping panic at bay.
Usually I'd start to feel faint so I'd go to the toilet, compose myself, go back, feel faint again, back to the toilet... etc.. just as I'd done when I went to see Lulu in cabaret.
On the wall of the waiting room was a water colour of a garden with flowers and a hammock. I stood and looked at the picture and imagined I was lying in that hammock.
I imagined I could feel it swaying, hear the birds, feel the gentle warmth of the sun on my skin and an occasional slight breeze through my hair and on my face... I kept this image and these sensations in my mind as calmly and as vividly as I could... and the panicky feelings drifted away...
I may have lost a wisdom tooth that day but in doing so I gained greater and much-needed wisdom about something far more important.
That was the turning point. After that I did the same each time any of the old type of panicky thoughts entered my head, each time my survival instinct prompted negative raised arousal with a danger warning. I then stopped listening to the warning and instead focused calmly and totally on my senses of being in that garden. Overcoming panics became a possibility. Gradually over months and years the panicky thoughts tried to barge their way in less and less until they finally gave up and disappeared.
I can now sit in traffic jams, drive past accidents, I even bandaged the hand of a colleague when she fell on broken glass... I now know that no matter what, if I don't think about it, it can't get me!
If you want more details and a step-by-step approach to how I did it, these are available either by reading my book or by enrolling for my online course. CLICK ON IMAGES BELOW FOR MORE DETAILS
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How my panic attacks started and what I finally did to lose them for good.
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