Phobias and Panic Attacks

For most of my life, I have had phobias going on.

When I say phobia, I don’t just mean being scared of spiders or heights for example (which I am). I mean having properly horrendous, mostly irrational panic attack triggering phobias where I can’t breathe/feel I might pass out/am frozen to the spot/think I might projectile vomit over everyone/sweat profusely/jump out of a moving vehicle to escape it etc.

These kind of phobias seriously limit life’s enjoyment when they take ahold, it can be simply exhausting trying to keep up appearances as a “normal” calm person.

I have never really spoken about my experiences around phobias publicly.

There may be people reading this who know me, and who will be quite surprised by this post. It may go some way towards explaining why, at times, I may seem like I’m acting strange/grumpy/distant/difficult, or maybe you are surprised because its never crossed your mind that this level of stress was going on inside my body.

Before I sought professional help to address them, I became extremely adept at developing coping mechanisms to both conceal and deal with the daily agony of living with my phobias. Unfortunately, my phobias to date have each involved otherwise mundane and common day-to-day activities, which has been a drag to say the least.

My number one coping strategy was avoidance. It definitely works to simply try and avoid your trigger situation altogether but in avoiding the situation and pretending it doesn’t exist, or not being willing to tell people about it causes a whole raft of other issues in the medium term, at least in my case anyway.

It’s hard to explain, but my avoidance rituals sometimes edged into OCD territory. So for example, I would have to do things in a certain order in the morning just to try and keep calm before heading into university.

I have listed some of my phobias below.

Some are inter-linked topics. As you can imagine, this allowed negative thinking patterns to really bed in, get comfy and grow tentacles into every conceivable area of my life at the points at which I was struggling most:

  1. An early phobia that I was about to swallow my own tongue or have a fit. This was triggered by witnessing a stranger have an epileptic fit (I am not epileptic).

2. A phobia of being travel sick on the swim team bus.

This happened once when I was about eight, resulting in any form of race/ nerves triggering high anxiety/panic attacks/ leading to a fear of, or actually, vomiting on the team bus. My attempts to avoid getting on any bus thereafter were of course futile and regarded badly.

3. A phobia of travelling in any moving vehicle near a cliff edge/harbour sides or indeed anywhere said vehicle could “potentially” veer into the water rendering me submerged and trapped in water.

I think this started when my dad pretended once to drive to the edge of a harbour at speed as a joke, then veered away.

I have actually jumped out of moving vehicles since when panicking we might get too close to the edge.

I have extremely claustrophobic tendencies in general and a need to be near an exit where I can “get out” of the situation at all times.

4. A phobia of driving on dual carriageways/motorways.

This one got really out of hand after I had my daughter, to the point I would walk miles with her in the stroller rather than drive anywhere. I think this was some form of post-natal anxiety making me panic that I would pass out behind the wheel at high speed or have a smash with slip road traffic or get horribly lost.

So there’s definitely a vehicle based/getting trapped with no escape/vomiting/passing out/public humiliation vibe going on in all cases.

My abject terror of being seen to be having “a fit” or “being sick” publicly was the other event to be avoided always at all costs.

The importance of being able to “get out” of something before a panic attack happened was essential in my internal management of the situation, but the stress of having to leave and draw attention to myself was also an issue up there with having a “fit” or being “sick”

So the triggers just got worse and worse and worse and the coping mechanisms began to flail.

It started with the swim bus claustrophobia, then any type of travel with third parties, then classes at school (assemblies etc were horrendous), university lectures, cinemas, exam halls, graduations. Anywhere where I could have a panic attack or be sick publicly or need to draw attention to myself by leaving before it happened. There were a couple of steps I could take to take the edge off, mainly always sitting at the end of a row as close as possible to an exit. But still felt crap if this happened to be in a position where anyone could see me leaving. As you can imagine, my classmates must have found my odd seating requirements without any explanation very strange. I was absent as rarely as I could be but inevitably the day-to-day stress of all this meant I missed a fair few days of both high school and university, again either feigning illness, or just seemingly doing the student slacker thing.

The first time I sought professional assistance to address all this was when I was at university aged about 23, I just couldn’t take finding life so hard any more. Worrying about worrying was making me physically ill to my stomach regularly, and my ability to cope was wearing thin. I hadn’t told anyone explicitly what I was going through, I didn’t know anything about mental health and even in the early 2000s it was not openly spoken about. Internet access was still fairly limited in my case to the university desktop computers, so I would never really just be surfing the net with searching questions.

I went to my GP and burst into tears. He was neither sympathetic, nor judgemental – I got the impression he didn’t have much experience of this kid of thing. I received a straight referral to a nurse who was able to offer me three cognitive behavioural therapy sessions.

Comparing now to then, these sessions were in their infancy in terms of development and I had the feeling that some of the techniques that I was being taught were fairly cutting edge.

These CBT sessions were a total game changer as they gave me facts about what was happening within my fight or flight response whenever I was triggered. This helped me to be a bit more rational about it all. I was taught breathing techniques both to relax generally, and if I found myself caught up in a spiral. I was taught about normalising the experience, which got me in a place where I could recognise that the likelihood of vomiting or having a random fit on any given day was, in reality, very remote. I became so much better, it took time and a lot of courage and effort, but slowly slowly my difficult situations eased. Even today I can sometimes start to feel anxious, but I can bring myself back using my CBT knowledge.

So fast forward, ten years – I have a baby, and I discover I can’t drive on multi-lane roads without having breathing issues and feeling like I’m about to pass out. I recognise what’s going on but go into denial because I think I’m already cured. I basically avoid driving as much as possible and when I do drive I have to go strange z road routes. I have to make excuses as to why I can’t give friends lifts, drive home to see parents, or even do things with other mums that involve a drive to get there. So weird. Different from the claustrophobia/vomit trigger but I could sort of see where the catastrophic thinking was coming from.

This time, I let it go on for a couple of years in semi-denial, but then we moved house and I decided to refer myself back into the psychology team for phobia CBT after my second child was born. I had a quick session with a counsellor who recognised my familiarity with breaking and normalising my thought patterns around phobias/triggers and signed me up for a “driving a car” specific CBT online module. This therapy was also a game-changer.

The main home work was going to a scary stretch of road for me, driving on to the motorway every day and coming off at the next exit unil I wasn’t scared anymore. Initially terrifying and again, now and again the fear still grips me, but after a few weeks I had cracked it and I can drive pretty much anywhere now! It was also amazing to know that it was such a common phobia that there was a specific resource to address and normalise it. I didn’t feel nearly as stupid about it after that and am fairly open with people about this phobia if it crops up.

So as you can see, there is excellent help out there, and you don’t need to feel shame for having weird or extreme fears to disrupt your day-to-day. Says me who is only sharing my full story now.

I feel CBT is excellent for anyone with very specific triggers but I personally am not so sure how well it would sit for me as a therapy for generalised anxiety disorder, as there would potentially be too broad a scope to overthink the whole thing and become overwhelmed. But that’s just my opinion about it.

I’m feeling quite emotional writing this as I’ve never really set it all out in a considered manner before, it always felt so much like firefighting from all directions trying to avoid the spiral into the panic attack.

In a way I can’t believe I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through basically daily from the age of 12 to my late twenties. So much consequential damage has been done to my confidence and self-esteem because of sustaining such a harsh inner voice around all this. Thankfully, there are no phobias around just now and I haven’t had a panic attacks for a number of years.

Do you have any experience of phobias and/or panic attacks?

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