Leona O'Neill: Panic attacks made me 'strong, fearless and forged from steel'

When panic attacks strike, they can be terrifying. However, as Leona O’Neill explains, these debilitating episodes are more common than you might think and there are plenty of ways to cope with them which can even help to reduce their frequency

Panic attacks can be terrifying - but there are ways to cope with them
Panic attacks can be terrifying - but there are ways to cope with them

I SPOKE to a young man last week for a story who suffered from debilitating panic attacks. After our interview, I told him that I had once struggled with them and that things will get better.

I remember the first time I took one, I was maybe 15-years-old. I didn't know what the hell was happening, except that I was almost certainly dying. It happened not long after my friend's mum died suddenly. I was only a kid and didn't really understand how someone so important could be there one minute, full of life, and then in a box the next.

The panic attack happened completely out of the blue. I was not stressed or anxious, just sitting there in my mum's office by myself. I suddenly felt dizzy, like I couldn't breathe, my heart was racing, my palms sweaty, I had waves of intense anxiety wash over me. I felt like I was going to pass out.

After about 15 minutes I didn't die and started to come round a bit, but it totally freaked me out and I spent weeks worrying about if it would happen again. And it did happen again. And again. And again.

I told no one about it because I couldn't explain what had happened or how I felt, because I thought it sounded mad. I was plagued with these panic attacks throughout my early 20s and tried everything to get rid of them myself.

I knew no one who experienced them, thus felt very alone, and was always terrified that I'd have one of these attacks in front of someone or pass out in public. And I kept all this to myself. Because I didn't talk to anyone about it, I literally thought that I was the only person on the planet who had these terrifying episodes and felt that way.

In the 1990s, I remember putting the symptoms into the new internet search engines and stumbling across a forum on 'panic attacks'. It was full of people from all over the world talking about the symptoms I had, feeling exactly the same way I did and giving tips on how to stop them happening.

Suddenly, I wasn't so alone, what I was dealing with had a name, I had ways to stop them in their tracks and take back a little control. Suddenly, I worried a little less about them coming on.

I felt a little more confident talking about them and mentioned what happened to a friend, who said that he got them too and he knew someone else who had them. All of a sudden, this big massive mysterious thing was actually really common and it took the steam out of something that had occupied my mind for far too long.

With every conversation, I took the power back from these once truly terrifying episodes. I've gone years without having a full-blown one because I know what triggers them and how to nip them in the bud.

While I was in the midst of the worst of them I used to think having panic attacks made me weak, but looking back and working through it they have, in the long run, actually made me strong, fearless and forged from steel. There is nothing more terrifying than your own body working against you, so anything below that is totally manageable.

Teenagers are the age group most likely to experience panic attacks. When they have arisen in people I love, I have been able to take the steam out of them very quickly by understanding, explaining exactly what is happening to the body and reassuring them that they are not dangerous, they are just the body's reaction to a build up of stress.

If you or your child experiences panic attacks you might want to try some of these tips. If you or your loved one feels one coming on, do not fight it, let it wash over you and be on its way. It's good to stay where you are and breathe slowly and deeply to restore calm.

If you find that a mantra helps, use one. Remind yourself that this feeling will pass and focus on positive, peaceful and relaxing images. And remember it is not life-threatening.

Prevention is often better than cure. Learning breathing techniques is really helpful and yoga is amazing for calming the mind. Complementary therapies such as massage and aromatherapy work wonders, as does regular exercise. Cutting out sugary food and drinks and ditching the caffeine and alcohol will also help.

If you are worried about you or your child having panic attacks, please speak to your GP.