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Vivre Sa Vie
London, United Kingdom
Well hello there. My name is Viv (well, it's not really), and, like a lot of people, I'm ever so slightly neurotic... I have panic attacks and anxiety (ranging from mild to pretty intense), on and off. I also have an amazing and quite high-profile job, so I'm choosing to remain anonymous on here. Not because I'm ashamed of the aforementioned neuroses, but because I don't want to be googled and for my colleagues to read bizarre posts about me breathing into a paper bag and popping lorazepam. I've worked for bookshops, mixed arts festivals and charities, and have met (and still meet!) a lot of famous, fetching and fantabulous people for my job. (See, anxiety doesn't need to stop you being AWESOME and doing what you want to do) Here's hoping you'll find some helpful hints and tips on here which will help you tackle the evil panic heebiejeebs... PS. I'm an Australian, but I live in the UK, and have adopted tea-drinking, pubs, Wodehouse, and a Welsh man.
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Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Better breathing for panicked panters...

'Doctor, Doctor, I just have this, sort of, suffocating feeling, like someone's got their hands around my neck and I can't get any air...'

I've just realised that I haven't yet shared one of the all-time best panic-busting tips I've ever been given.

After being diagnosed with panic disorder, I languished for six months on a CBT treatment course waiting list (thank you NHS), but I did finally wend my trembling way into a treatment room. And when I did, BOY was the wait worth it (thank you NHS, no sarcasm). 

Having the CBT was the first time I really got to grips with this gnarly panic crap, and began to lose my fear of panic a bit. I'd tried some CBT in self-help books prior to that (I ordered approximately 851,000 different books and CDs on Amazon), but it never really stuck, and being an impatient, type A sort of person, I would just race through the chapters, do the exercises quickly, shout 'FINISHED!' triumphantly, and then complain that it wasn't working. 

Before then, I think I still thought I would die with each panic attack. I thought I was completely insane, and needed to be locked up. I thought my life as I knew it was over. Of course now I still have a moment during panic when I think all of those things, but my more logical brain can fight back much quicker and win the day in the end. 

It's too much to cram into a single post (maybe I should do a series?), but the overriding rule that changed my panic-stricken life was: DON'T TRY TO CONTROL YOUR BREATHING.  It was completely at odds with all the other stuff I'd been reading and trying (breathing in for 5, hold for 4, out for 8 - that sort of thing), and with loads of other panic advice I'd been given.  

The guy asked me to hyperventilate with him so he could prove it to me. I cried and refused (why the hell would I do that?! I literally spent every second trying NOT to hyperventilate!) so we tried it in another session once I trusted him a bit more. He did it with me, and promised nothing bad would happen to either of us. We deliberately hyperventilated together (one of the stranger experiences I've shared with a complete stranger) and watched what happened afterwards. Essentially, your body regulates itself. It does not need you to sit and watch your breath. It does not need you to count each one in and out. It does not need you to DO anything. It just does it on its own! Miraculous, hey?! If you hyperventilate and go out of whack, in a short space of time it will come back into whack - without your help or control or vigilant inspection. 

I cannot tell you what a huge, unbelievably liberating relief it was just to LET GO of the goddamn breathing thing and just let it do its thing. It was like taking off a 100kg backpack and leaving it at the door. It sounds obvious to non-panickers, but it certainly wasn't to me then. I don't think I've ever fully hyperventilated (in an out-of-control way) since then. I may have got strained, and struggled, and started to breathe quickly, and worried I was going to run out of air, but the less I tried to control it, the quicker it came back round to normal in the end.

That's it. Don't control your breathing. Just let your body do its thing.

Sorry for a tortuously long, and possibly slightly dull post, chaps, but the fundamentals are important too, right?! 

A successful, non-panicked breather will look relaxed and beatific, like so.


Anthony said...

Hmm. My problem is that I under-breathe when I panic -- I freeze and my diaphragm seizes up. I then try to force myself to compensate by deliberately deep-breathing, which makes me dizzy, which only intensifies the panic. Nightmare. Clearly, I have to break this cycle somewhere. For me, I think the chronic nature of the under-breathing -- which I do all day long, holding myself in a state of constant near-paralysis, almost as if attempting to slow down the passage of time itself to somehow magic away (or forget) whatever's making me anxious (i.e. almost everything) -- is what I need to tackle first of all, in a mindful, watchful way: intervene and stop the under-breathing at the earliest opportunity so that I don't panic later on and frantically try to correct it by rapidly over-breathing.

Er, anyway, this was a much longer comment than I intended. Thanks for a thought-/screed-provoking post, and an incredibly insightful, reassuring blog.

Vivre Sa Vie said...

Hi Anthony - thank you so, *so* much for your lovely comments! I can't tell you how much I appreciate them, and I'm so incredibly glad this blog has helped you a little bit. It does feel better to know that loads of other normal, wonderful people are also going through the same thing (and it's always good to laugh about it, when you can).

I know exactly what you mean about the under-breathing. I actually found a quote in a book that really helped explain that to me (and the really tight feeling I got like a band across my chest, and the way my body would just paralyse itself in exactly the way you described).

Apparently, the 'fight or flight response' has often been called the 'fight, flight or FREEZE response' - obviously stopping still and freezing your body and breathing very shallowly (playing dead essentially) was also a pretty good way to deal with a potential threat, and is one of the very 'helpful' evolutionary leftovers we panickers are left with! Knowing that made it a lot easier for me to deal with, so I would just say to myself 'It's okay. My pre-historic lizard brain thinks there's a lion coming, and it's freezing me. It's not remotely helpful right now, and it's hard to get any air in, but I CAN get enough air, so if I just stay calm and try to relax as much as I possibly can, it will pass and return to normal eventually'.

What you describe is *exactly* the same thing I went through - endless cycles of under and over-breathing. It took me a long while (and a big course of CBT) to get to this understanding that breathing works perfectly well if you just leave it the f*%k alone!!! But I promise it does get easier once you throw your hands up in the air and let your body do what it does so well naturally.

Sorry this was so long! Keep reading and write in whenever you like - you'll be making a stressed blogger feel useful :) xx

Vivre Sa Vie said...

Wow, that looks really long now I've pressed the publish button. Yikes. I should call this a correspondence course and just be done with it!

Vivre Sa Vie said...

PS. (I can't stop!!!) I think all the self-help stuff should just shut up altogether about all the breathing stuff. I'm sure that just perpetuates everyone's anxiety about 'doing it right' and 'avoiding hyperventilation' and 'not getting too much oxygen' etc, and draws attention to it and makes it a worrisome, troublesome thing that you have to look after and maintain. Garr. When I rule the world (and the self-help industry, God help us all) I'll erase all those sections.


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