Ellie's story

One of the scariest things about having a panic attack is that you often don’t realise what it is. Sometimes people race to the hospital thinking that they’re having a heart attack only to be told that it’s all in their head.

“The first time I ever had a panic attack I thought I was just nervous. I was in my late teens and had been invited to a friend’s housewarming party on the other side of the city with people I had never met before. The whole day leading up to the party I debated not going. ‘It’ll be fine,’ I thought to myself, ‘it always turns out fine.’ I forced myself to go even though I knew I was feeling ‘off’. That feeling never went away.

About an hour in, things started to go downhill. The drink I’d chosen was too sweet. I felt like I was going to be sick. I couldn’t concentrate on the conversation. All I could think about was how my heart was pounding and what must people be thinking about me? I excused myself to the bathroom where I convinced myself that there must be something wrong with me. I was consumed by this overwhelming sense of panic. I remember not understanding what was happening to me. I couldn’t see any logical reason for why I was reacting this way which just made me even more anxious.

The time alone helped me to calm down and take control of my breathing and thoughts. In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor attack. I was able to regain composure and return to the party (even if I was somewhat shaken).”

A panic attack is a brief episode of fear or an intense rush of anxiety when there is no actual danger present. There’s no complete set of symptoms that you can check off to confirm you’re having a panic attack. People experience them differently and on a different level of severity – from having a bit of a ‘breakdown’ to thinking they’re dying. Up to 40 per cent of people in Australia experience a panic attack at some point in their life.

Statistic reading 1 in 3 people will have a panic attack in their life

A lot of the symptoms are similar to the ‘fight-or-flight’ response which is a physiological reaction to a dangerous or life-threatening situation. This natural human response has evolved from way back when our ancestors had to deal with everyday dangers like sabre-toothed tigers. Thankfully now we don’t have to deal with tigers, but it doesn’t mean our brains have lost the ability to ‘freak out’.  

But is it nothing? Having a panic attack can be a sign that you are experiencing anxiety and if you are having them regularly you could have panic disorder. This is when the attacks happen so often they stop you from living your life normally. Often family history, biological factors, past trauma or ongoing stress can also contribute to panic attacks. It’s important to consult a GP or counsellor if you are experiencing panic attacks.

Related reading: When your inner critic is giving you a tough time

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