Emily’s monster – living with panic attacks

By Renee Murphy

Standing in the middle of the checkout line at the supermarket, Emily* felt the familiar sense of panic starting to build.   

Her anxiety was a terrifying monster lurking in the background as she went about her daily life.  It followed her everywhere she went and could grab hold of her at any moment.  One minute she was fine.  The next she was having a panic attack.

Her breathing was too fast now.  Far too shallow.  There were droplets of sweat on her trembling hands.  Her heart was racing.   She had the repetitive thought that she was trapped.  If she could just get out she could get away from the monster’s grip. She tried hard to fight the horrible feeling off, but it continued to build.

In her mind, Emily saw herself running out the door, escaping the monster. Could the other customers tell she was crazy?  The last thing she wanted was to attract attention, so she did her best to look calm and ‘normal’ like all the other people around her.

It was her turn at the checkout now and her anxiety was peaking.  Emily felt detached from reality, like she wasn’t present in her own body.  She fumbled the groceries onto the checkout making no conversation with the checkout operator.  It was all she could do stop herself from fleeing.

Finally, she escaped into the fresh cool air of the car park.  As she loaded her groceries into the car, the feelings of panic slowly subsided.  The monster retreated into the background, but Emily knew he would be back.  She lived in constant fear of the next attack.

Emily had been suffering from anxiety attacks for the last few months and they were becoming more frequent.  She had begun to avoid situations that were likely to bring one on, turning down invites out for coffee and shopping trips with her university friends.  She made up up all kinds of excuses about why she couldn’t make it.  Crowded lecture theatres were also overwhelming, so she had started skipping classes.

The monster was ruling her life.  She knew she needed to seek help, so she made an appointment to see a counsellor at the student counselling service on campus.  It was the first step in regaining a sense of control and enjoyment in her life.

*name has been changed

Around one in ten people will experience a panic attack at some stage in their life. With the exam period looming stress can build for students. Make sure you are aware of the signs, and always feel comfortable asking for help.

What are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks (anxiety attacks) are episodes of intense anxiety and dread which strike without warning.  They cause overwhelming physical and emotional symptoms and can happen at any time, even when a person is relaxed.

Common symptoms of panic attacks include:

  • Breathlessness
  • Fast heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Flushing or chills
  • Nausea and a churning stomach
  • Dizziness
  • Feelings of detachment from reality
  • Fear of dying, going crazy or losing control
  • Trembling or muscle twitches

Who is affected?

About one in ten people experience a panic attack during their lifetime.  Some people may have a single episode while around three per cent of the population have recurring attacks.  Onset is most common during late adolescence and early adulthood, although they can occur at any age.  Women are affected more commonly than men.

What causes panic attacks?

Attacks are often triggered by situations where a person feels unable to escape or in places where attacks have occurred previously.  They can be more frequent during periods when stress levels are high, such as during exams or following a divorce or the death of a loved one.

Getting help

Anxiety attacks can impact greatly on a person’s quality of life, as they may avoid circumstances which make them feel anxious and withdraw from activities they once enjoyed.

Anxiety and panic attacks are treatable and seeking support is a key step in regaining a sense of wellness.  It is best to get professional help early rather than hoping they will go away.

If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or panic attacks there are many options;

  • Discuss your symptoms with your Doctor
  • Visit the Student Counselling Service
  • Visit and take the anxiety test
  • Call one of the following free helplines:

Anxiety Line 0800 ANXIETY (2694 389)

Depression Helpline 0800 111 757.

Lifeline Aotearoa 0800 543 354

Youthline 0800 376 633

Talk to friends and family about how you are feeling so they can support you. Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength







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