Panic attacks and anxiety: it’s good to talk

Photo by Nathan Cowley from pexels

I never expected that a regular, wintry morning train commute to London Bridge station would see me ending up in the back of an ambulance. This particular morning in November 2018 started like any other work day as I took my 07:59 train, albeit delayed. I got no seat, which was unusual, the carriage was fuller than normal due to multiple delays all along the way into London, and was notably warm for it. Two more stops, more passengers piled on, my room for standing reduced significantly. The heat became more intense and there was no way to cool down or get out of the hot, clammy train carriage. Meanwhile the train’s progress into London slowed to a crawl. I could feel myself getting anxious, sweaty, my heart rate rising and breathing quickened, while the pace of the train only slowed and slowed. There was nowhere I could escape to, practically nowhere to turn, I felt, and was, powerless to do anything. But I knew I needed help. 

On arrival after a journey that at 40 minutes had taken twice as long as usual, but felt like forever, I got off, first thing I did was ask for help from a Network Rail employee on the platform, telling him I was feeling very unwell.  He brought me to a seat, where I took off my coat and jumper and yet was still sweating, despite the winter chill. Some passers-by, though you would think they’d be scurrying to work along with the flow of commuters, saw I was unwell enough to stop, and looked, if not gawped. More station staff arrived and then British Transport police, all of them looking at me and talking about me, unnerving me even further as my heart pounded and breathing became faster. 

I was then taken to the first aid room, sat down and asked if I needed an ambulance, to which, feeling increasingly out of it, I just said “yes”. Shortly after calling 999 one staff-member retrieved the defibrillator out of a cupboard, whereupon my anxiety rocketed, the pains and sensations running through my body markedly increased and I began to hyperventilate even more. A second, more urgent call was made, and shortly afterwards an ambulance crew arrived. They quickly assessed I was suffering from a ‘panic attack’ (a sudden overwhelming feeling of acute and disabling anxiety), and rapidly reassured me that there was nothing seriously wrong. This was very much a routine type of call for them. A period in the back of the ambulance allowed me to recover and as all checks were normal, I was released and ready to continue my journey to work as if nothing at all had happened. 

That was the only panic attack I’ve had, and hope to be lucky in that it being my first panic attack, it will be my last, for I can recognise the symptoms now. However, not everyone is so lucky in their ability to manage anxiety, to see it for what it is, and research by the mental health charity Mind has found that one in every four people will experience some kind of mental health problem in any given year. (Mental Health Statistics UK 2019) I am minded to recall my London Bridge story, as anxiety and panic attacks affect so many and one who has suffered greatly is the journalist Donie O’Sullivan, from County Kerry, Ireland. He very recently became a global TV sensation for his calm reporting for CNN, interviewing the rioters who stormed the Capitol building in Washington on the 6th January 2021. 

You would think looking at him on CNN, here was a fearless man reporting live on the biggest news story of the decade, mingling with and interviewing Trump supporters and rioters as they moved towards the Capitol, questioning the motivation and background behind what they were doing, delving into and interrogating the conspiracy theories these Trump supporters believed, peddled to others, and acted upon with murderous violence. He was doing a dangerous day’s work in what is anyway a job fraught with risk.  But there he was, this 29-year-old slip of a lad, holding his own. And he has chosen to use his new fame to speak about his ongoing battles with anxiety, depression and panic attacks which have plagued his life, as he wrote in the Irish Times.  

“I would say that the chaos that I have had in the past in my mind is far more terrifying than anything I have encountered, even at the riot that day at the Capitol.” 

“The most terrifying position I have been in in my life has been in my own mind in the grips of anxiety and depression,” he continued.  

He is determined to shine a light on mental health issues especially for men and the need to seek and get help, and he notes how long it took him to recognise the illness, and that he needed help for it. The anxiety first started taking a toll back in 2012, when he was studying for a masters in politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. At the time, he was working for one of the committees in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. At first, he thought he was having heart palpitations, but then “I thought I was having a heart attack in bed one Sunday night,” he wrote. 

“I can’t remember when the penny dropped, but this was anxiety, and it then quickly developed into the anxiety being so bad. I was getting all of these sorts of racing thoughts and panicking, every moment of the day almost. And then it started to get hard to get up in the mornings because the only bit of peace I had was when I closed my eyes and slept.” 

The article continues: “It was a “fairly hellish” time for Donie, then just 21. There was the sweating, the racing heart, the panic attacks every day, having to rush into the toilets at Stormont to vomit, be it in the middle of the day, or as would become several times a day, as the anxiety became too much.” 

Still, he reached out to his family and they supported him, and for all his ongoing struggles with his own mental health, he persevered and landed his job with CNN, as the Irish Times article fascinatingly details. His sheer guts and determination to overcome his daily anxiety and constant panic attacks is a marvel and inspiration for all of us, and I urge those reading this story to read the Irish Times interview in full and take great encouragement from it.  

For so many more of us, the lockdown has caused suffering from mental health issues, sufferers ranging in age from school children to adults. It truly impacts all ages and from all walks of life. Perhaps one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic is the continued growth in conversation surrounding the importance of mental health and wellbeing. As such, we all have a role to play in this area, and on the next Zoom call or chat do remember to ask your work colleagues, friends or neighbours how are they doing and how are they managing lockdown. Kindness and empathy can go a long way. We are all suffering from the stress of the pandemic in one way or another and cannot wait for normality to come back. For some, recovery may be quick, but for others it will take time and they might need professional help. For some the prospect of returning to work in an office, with all the grind and squalor of a daily commute, may itself be too overwhelming a sensation and they simply cannot return without help.  

I am lucky that my own panic attack was triggered by circumstances which I hope will not reoccur. I will avoid travelling on a crowded London Tube and being squashed up like a sausage in a hot, enclosed environment. Yet millions do this every day in London, or rather were doing before the pandemic, and are to return to it. This is while we increasingly frequently read stories in the paper of people being stuck on the Tube or overground trains for hours in hot weather, needing to be rescued and lead out to safety along the tracks, and of the paramedics needed to assist people as they emerged. And that is just one facet of many everyone will face upon returning to ‘normality’.  

Stay safe and well everyone and if feeling anxious talk to your friends, family, a work colleague or a health professional.

Let’s end with Donie’s words: “It is important for me, while I have my 15 minutes of fame, to say I have gone through anxiety and depression. I am terrified of it still, and I don’t want it to come back.” 

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