Panic attacks: The dirty little secret of many high achievers

My clients joke that I specialise in two types of problems— Rich People Problems (referencing the third book in the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy) and Overachiever Problems.

Each group is curious about the unexpected problems the other faces— we believe that each other’s world is so perfect, what problems could they possibly have?

Here’s something many high performers suffer in silence about— panic attacks.

Not an anxiety attack

Let’s get real. A panic attack is not an anxiety attack.

Yes, you can feel paralysed from overthinking, your heart can beat madly, but that is not the same as a panic attack.

In the heat of the moment, you cannot scold yourself out of a panic attack, or use positive talk to pretend it’s all okay.

Your heart palpitates so strongly that you think you’re having a heart attack.

You hyperventilate, your chest seizes, you think you’re going to faint. And everyone will see you and laugh at you.

Your palms are sweaty, your limbs are jelly, your mouth is bone-dry.

The prickly heat at the back of your neck has crawled electrically up your skull and spread throughout your entire body, you want to peel your skin off.

You’ll do anything for fresh air.

You’ll do anything to run away.

That is a panic attack. One where it feels like an alien has taken over your body.

But “Why me?”

The short answer is, you’ve been tolerating anxiety, medicating it away with any means, and your body is screaming that something in your life has to change.

How we unwittingly make things worse

The problem is, we go to school and learn lots of nifty things. But no one’s ever taught us what a panic attack is, or how to take care of our minds.

The first time I had a panic attack, I didn’t even know I was having one. I was in my first month of training as a clinical psychologist; I had four years of undergraduate psychology behind me, and I still couldn’t recognise it.

All I knew was that something was wrong, I had to run away, and I never wanted to feel that way again.

Here’s what worsened it all for me and my clients, before we found freedom.

  1. Alien Syndrome. We believe everyone else has it better than us, that we’re the only stupid people struggling, and that we should buck up. That shame and anxiety feeds the alien taking over your body during panic attacks.
  2. Running away. I know that place where you have panic attacks is the last place you ever want to go to. But, running away means you train yourself to believe your body will never be able to regulate itself. And you start fearing more situations.
  3. Those rumours that it’ll never heal. As a licensed mental health professional, I was aghast to hear even my supervisors tell me, “You have to tell your clients that it’s something they’ll have to manage all their lives”. You can see panic attacks to be a species of anxiety; anxiety happens to everyone at some point in our lives. The solution isn’t to manage it. It is to master it.
  4. Those stories on how some spiritual method healed panic attacks. And you look at yourself, wondering why you’re the only special snowflake who didn’t heal. Here’s the deal. Those panic attacks they were talking about were anxiety attacks.
  5. Talking it away. “I’ve been doing talk therapy for the last five years, and I still can’t get on planes”, a client tells me. I’m flummoxed. “What on earth have you been talking about?”, I ask him. “Family dynamics”, he says. Yes, there is a time and place for figuring out your family, but panic, anxiety and trauma are stored in your body. They cannot be analysed away.
  6. Learned helplessness. Over time, if things don’t change, we learn to become helpless and homeless. Our world shrinks. Maybe it starts with avoiding a train or a plane. Then it becomes crowded places. Then it becomes public places. Your quality of life avalanches. You don’t see yourself as the same person anymore.

Your quick Cheat Sheet Strategy

“How did Dr Neo get you on the train so quickly”, my psychiatrist asked our client Charlie.

This was a man who’d avoided trains, cafés and planes for decades. In our third hour, we’d celebrated his first train ride in a café. His smile was priceless. “I know my daughters will not learn from my anxiety anymore”, he told me.

We didn’t talk about his anxiety for years or even months. Here’s what we did— that I’ve replicated with every single client— over the years.

  1. Sort out the root— your panic attacks are mirroring something in your life that needs to change. Maybe you feel trapped in a situation, or increasingly scrutinised— yes, it’s that “stupid little thing” that bugs you, that really isn’t that stupid.
  2. Do it with a trained professional. That way, you can strategise a master plan on the baby steps to conquer. You didn’t have such bad or extensive panic attacks overnight, likewise, they won’t disappear overnight. And there are ways you can structure your experiences in these triggering environments to make it all easier.
  3. Learn how to regulate your nervous system. Our amygdala— or fear centre— pulsates like a siren every time we believe there is some kind of threat. The good news is, there are many ways to reset it, such as conscious deep breathing. Two rules— when you breathe in, make sure you are filling your belly up with air, not sucking it in; when you breathe, you’re focusing so intently, there is no mental energy to think about anything else. Practise those until you get it right.
  4. Celebrate every single accomplishment. It doesn’t matter if Jane or Kevin sit in hot stuffy planes effortlessly. If you’ve managed to conquer a little bit more of your panic attacks, then that’s kudos to you. Every time you celebrate it, dopamine floods your brain’s synapses a little more, and that sense of reward makes you want to declare “I’m #crushingit!”.

Charlie started opening his life up to promotions that were once hampered by his inability to travel, and also closed many traumatic chapters from his childhood.

The only way out of the panic attacks was through them.

Charlie was one of those clients I took the train with, because we happened to be in the same country. And then there’ve been every other client with whom we’ve done this successfully over FaceTime.

If you’re reading this, and panic attacks have been your dirty little secret, know they can simply be something in your past that you’re proud of conquering.

If you would like further information – please get in touch.