Panic attacks: I felt like I wasn't real

Milli had always wanted to live and work overseas. But when she finally made it over to London, she found herself unemployed and homesick. Struggling with the pressure to get a job and ‘live the dream’ she started experiencing panic attacks. 

She had no idea what was happening. She thought she was having a medical emergency. It wasn’t until she found a website about anxiety that things started to click into place. 

With the right support, time and patience, Milli was soon able to enjoy her time in London. When she moved to Melbourne, she was worried about it happening again. This time round however, she knew what she needed to do to look after herself and stay well. 

Hear Milli talk about what her panic attacks felt like and the steps she took to manage them. 


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Narrator 00.01 

Just a heads up – this episode features a personal story of mental health. If this brings up distressing feelings for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service. 

Milli 00.16 

I thought I was having a medical emergency. Everything was happening at once. You know, the heart palpitations, the sweaty palms the... I was really dizzy. I was always really worried that I was going to faint. But I guess if you were to look at me, if you were just walking past, you probably would have just seen someone standing in the foyer. 

Narrator 00.42 

Welcome to Not Alone. Incredible stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health to help you with yours. This episode is about what a panic attack feels like and how to manage it. 

[Theme song ‘Friends with feelings’ by Alice Skye plays]  

Narrator 01.21 

Milli grew up in Palmerston North in New Zealand, but she always wanted to travel. So when the opportunity to live and work overseas came up, she grabbed it with both hands. 

Milli 01.35 

I had always wanted to live in London. I think ever since I first went to university. It's kind of a Kiwi rite of passage to move overseas. I had quite high expectations of what London was going to offer me, both from a job perspective but also from a lifestyle perspective. I ended up studying finance at uni and I think I had seen so many people go before me and get these amazing sort of high flying jobs and you'd see photos and they’d be away every weekend and it was the land of opportunity. 

It sounds really cheesy, but that's kind of how I viewed it. 

Narrator 02.16 

In September 2008, Milli made the move. She packed up her life and all her savings and arrived in London ready to start her new adventure. And when she arrived, bang! A job offer. 

Milli 02.32 

Being who I was, and all my friends had sort of already got jobs, I started looking for a role straightaway, and I was extremely lucky. I got offered quite a good job for my level at a global corporation over there. So I think in my head I was - that's how it was supposed to go. I was supposed to walk off the plane and get a job and find a place and everything was going to work well for me. 

So having been offered that contract, I went to Italy for a long weekend and then by the time I got back, the Global Financial Crisis had really started to take hold and the offer actually got retracted. 

Everyone had a recruitment freeze on. The market just shut down. It was another almost four months before I was able to even secure an interview. So reality was a lot different than the expectation. 

Narrator 03.35 

The Global Financial Crisis forced lots of businesses into hiring freezes. It was four months before Milli was able to secure another job interview. 

Milli 03.49 

When the offer got retracted. I wasn't expecting it. It sounds really, I don't want to say conceited, but I'd never not gotten a job or not had job opportunities. I think working in finance, that's part of the reason you work in that, you know, sector, because you think theres jobs aplenty. And it was a real shock to the system. 

And I felt really embarrassed because all of my friends who had the same education as me and the same experience, all had really good jobs. And my timing had just been off. I felt like a failure. I was embarrassed. I actually didn't tell people for quite some time that the offer had been retracted, and I think it had more of an impact on my self-esteem than I thought it would. 

I guess I'd always put a lot of pressure on myself to be academic and to be successful in my career. And this was sort of, you know, having doors slammed in my face. It was really, really hard. So I got pretty rundown pretty quickly. 

Narrator 04.52 

By this time, Milli was homesick, running out of money and living in a share house with five other people. The job wasn't the dream role she had imagined. This wasn't the life she'd envisaged, and the stress was taking its toll. 

Milli 05.13 

My health had gone downhill quite rapidly, both physically and emotionally. Obviously, I couldn't attribute it to anxiety or depression at that time, but I knew that I wasn't well. Physically, I had a lot of symptoms. One of the worst ones for me was constantly fast-racing heart. My hands would just always be trembling and I constantly had sort of tingling in my hands and my feet and my legs just felt weak. 

I just felt unwell but you couldn't really attribute it to anything that you'd experienced before, like a flu. And emotionally, I think the toll of being away from home for, you know, for months and arguably not a successful trip to date, I just felt incredibly flat. I found really hard to get out of bed, constantly tired. And that didn't really change once I got a job either. 

I was still really despondent, really disappointed in myself and really unsure about how to sort of pick myself up and trust myself to to move forward. 

Narrator 06.22 

One day, everything came to a head. 

Milli 06.27 

I had been having panic attacks without realizing it for a number of months. Each time they happened, I was more and more physically and emotionally worn out. And I remember once I had started in my new role, a particular day, I'd sort of I'd felt like I wasn't real. And I remember going downstairs into the foyer of the office building, and I'm not sure what happened. 

I'm not sure what triggered it, but I just felt like my legs weren't there anymore. I was shaking just uncontrollably, like to the point where I thought, I'm just I'm going to be on the ground in a moment. I thought I was having a medical emergency. This moment was my body just catching up on itself and just everything was happening at once. 

You know, the heart palpitations, the sweaty palms the - I was really dizzy. I was always really worried that I was going to faint. And the catastrophizing, it all kind of happened at once. If I faint people are going to, you know, it's going to be embarrassing for me. But I guess, you know, if you were to look at me, if you were just walking past, you probably would have just seen someone standing in the foyer. 

It was at that moment that it all sort of hit me at once, and I realized that I really had to do something to look after myself and to be able to start to enjoy the life that I should have been able to have in London. 

Narrator 07.56 

Milli was desperate for answers, so she went looking for them. A panic attack is when you get a sudden sense of overwhelming panic and fear. Panic attacks usually last for up to half an hour with the worst symptoms in the first 10 minutes. You can read more about panic attacks and panic disorder on the Beyond Blue website. 

Milli 08.23 

I was just so sick of being sick that I really started to actively try and find out what was wrong with me. Rightly or wrongly, that came in the form of Google. I would spend so long Googling individual symptoms, whether it be weak legs or tingling or headaches, and individually when you put those into Google. Google is not your friend. 

It would come back with things like cancer and multiple sclerosis. And that just sends you into a complete spiral. I was googling and I came across this anxiety website and, remembering that this was 10-15 years ago and it wasn't sort of commonplace and it wasn't as widely spoken about... I remember clicking on the link and it just came up with literally dozens of physical symptoms, which was quite overwhelming to read. 

But then also you see them and you're like that I have all of this. And I think most importantly was that it gave the medical reason for why anxiety causes those physical symptoms, which to me was what I needed to hear to give me comfort that I wasn't really physically ill. So it sounds silly to say that a website was a real turning point, but for me it absolutely was. 

Narrator 09.50 

Armed with this knowledge, Milli went back to the GP. 

Milli 09.56 

I eventually went to a GP in London, my local clinic and I was really open for the first time. You feel a bit silly, but you know, just telling them everything that was wrong with me physically and emotionally and this particular doctor was really great and they referred me to a psychologist. It was the best thing I could have done because it's where I got the diagnosis. 

And I think when you put all of the symptoms together, so it's a really clear picture for them. But for me, I had felt like I was going crazy. I honestly felt like I was losing my mind. You know, when you talk about symptoms like depersonalization or whatever they call it, and, you know, you feel detached from your own body, how do you how do you say that out loud to someone and think that it sounds normal? 

I don't know if I'd had a stigma around mental health before, but I felt nothing but just complete relief knowing that there was there was a name and there was now something that I could do about it. 

Narrator 11.06 

Milli was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, depression and panic disorder. Some of you might be asking yourself, what's the difference between a panic attack and panic disorder? Panic disorder is when you experience panic attacks regularly and they interrupt your everyday life. Having one panic attack doesn't mean you have panic disorder. Around 40% of Australians have a panic attack once or twice in their lives. 

In addition to being diagnosed with panic disorder, Milli was diagnosed with health anxiety, which helped her understand why she had become so focused on her physical symptoms. She was a little overwhelmed, but relieved that she finally understood what she was experiencing. The new found support from her psychologist helped set Milli on the right track, and over time, she developed new ways to stay well. 

Milli 12.12 

Some of the methods that I used to stay well, are the same as everybody else uses to manage their wellbeing. Exercise is huge. I'm not such a fan of yoga and things, so I know that works for some people. I love getting out, going for a run, doing a HIIT class. It makes me feel a million times better. 

I'm really conscious to make sure that I stay social. I know I have a tendency to, you know, if I'm feeling down and weak to just sort of retreat. But it's actually really important for me to get out and talk to friends. Spend time doing things that I enjoy and also just really cognisant of my triggers. I love a glass of wine, but I also know that if I'm feeling anxious at any given time, that's not a good idea for me. 

Same with, you know, little things like not having too much coffee. It sounds silly, but it really makes a difference to how I'm feeling. And also, I've learned to cut myself some slack. I used to have this really black and white logic about I'm either well or I'm unwell, but now I know that there's sort of a spectrum of that and I'm not always going to be super upbeat and super happy, and that's okay. 

Narrator 13.24 

From when she was a young finance student. Milli had struggled with the pressure to succeed. When she started to apply her new ways of looking after herself, she noticed things began to change. 

Milli 13.39 

I don't put so much pressure on myself to be perfect like I used to, and that has a huge impact on how I feel, more so than I think I ever thought possible. You know, I look back at the person that I was 10 years ago, and I don't see the same person now because the way that I control my thoughts, you know, manage my behaviour in the way that I approach situations is completely different. 

And that's all learned behaviour in much the same way as you would learn to manage a physical ailment. I've done the same with my mental health and that's thanks to, you know, does no one sort of thing that has got me to where I am. It's a combination of speaking to a psychologist, being really open with my friends. Exercise. It all contributes to me being well. 

Narrator 14.33 

Realizing that her mental health is something to be managed on an ongoing basis was a game changer for Milli. Pretty soon, London started to look like the dream she had imagined for herself. She stayed for seven years. Moving to Melbourne was another test. No friends, new workplace. Would she be able to cope? You bet she could. 

Milli 15.04 

I think when I look back on my mental health journey now, I'm super proud of how far I've come. Moving to London, it took a couple of years to get into the swing of it and two of the hardest years of my life to get through that. And I lived with anxiety and depression on and off throughout my time there, but I ended up staying for seven years. 

It's my absolute favorite city on earth. I look back at photos and I just had the most amazing time, despite the troubles that I had over there. Being able to get through that on my own when at times I definitely didn't think that I would. I didn't let it stop me from going through any other periods of change in my life. 

After I left London, I moved to Melbourne and I did it all again. I left my job and had to find a new job. When I got here, I had to find new friends and I hope, well I think that shows how far I've come, in terms of being able to manage my mental health. It was a long time when I couldn't even see myself sort of being happy or waking up really excited about things. 

But I always am, it always happens again. And I hope that that gives other people who have had, you know, experience with mental illness the confidence to know that they can do the same. It's something to be managed. It's certainly not something to stop you from doing what you want to do. 

Narrator 16.29 

Still in Melbourne, Milli enjoys her time by the bay, walking her dog and spending time with her friends. She has a nice balance between office life and working from home in a good job that she likes. Her mental health is still front of mind and she sees a psychologist regularly. It's something Milli says is a key factor in keeping well now. 

Milli 16.58 

I started seeing a psychologist here and I have done ever since I arrived, and it's the best thing I could do. It's just someone who doesn't know me, who can listen, observe, and sort of help me just get back in that that management mindset of how I need to adjust my thinking to stay well. I can't imagine ever not seeing him, actually, because that's one of the key things for me to manage my mental health. 

Narrator 17.29 

We want to say a huge thank you to Milli for sharing her story with us.  

We've covered a range of mental health issues and if anything has been upsetting for you, please contact the Beyond Blue Support Service on one 1300 22 4636. We've also listed a number of resources in our show notes. 

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri Country and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands. 

Thanks for listening to Not Alone.

Our theme song is Friends With Feelings, written and performed by Alice Skye, produced by CAAMA Music and published by Sony Music Publishing Pty Ltd.

Helpful resources

Suicide and crisis support:

  • The Beyond Now suicide safety planning app helps you stay safe if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, feelings, distress or crisis.
  • The Suicide Call Back Service provides professional 24/7 telephone and online counselling to people who are affected by suicide. You can access this service by calling 1300 659 467.
  • Lifeline provide crisis support and suicide prevention services – they can be contacted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 13 11 14.
  • If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000


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If you are in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm to yourself or others, please contact emergency services on 000. Other services include: