I was in Thailand in 2004 when the tsunami hit and engulfed everything in the vicinity. My friend and I were fortunate to escape with minimal injuries, however what we saw and felt that day would stay with us forever. When I returned to the U.K. and started university, I began to experience regular panic attacks during stressful situations. One time, I was in the midst of giving an exam when I felt hot flashes, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and was on the verge of vomiting — the same feelings I had experienced while we were waiting for hours to get rescued off the island we were on during the aftermath of the tsunami.
It took me years to understand why this was happening to me. When I started working, it got worse.
When I was nervous before important meetings, I would have a panic attack in anticipation of the meeting and I would be uncomfortable until the meeting was over.
Often I would have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom. I was always horrified by embarrassment.
When I moved to Dubai in 2009, due to the stress of moving to a new place and starting a new job, my attacks increased and there was no pattern in how long each attack lasted. They were so bad that I would avoid situations that I knew would trigger my panic attacks. For instance, important meetings in quiet, small meeting rooms with the door closed were my nemesis. Often something as normal as being stuck in traffic on the highway would lead to an attack. I finally started to began to notice a pattern — when I couldn’t easily escape or when I felt trapped, my adrenaline would start to rise. It was affecting my day-to-day life and it consumed most of my thoughts. I was constantly worried about my next attack and how to prevent it. After five years of suffering, I finally found a counselor in Dubai whom I could speak to about what I had been going through. It must have been fate as my therapist had traveled to the areas that the tsunami had hit to help people grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder. I knew I had found the right person to help me.
During our first session, my therapist explained that when we’re put in a highly stressful situation, signals are sent to both the amygdala and the cortex in our brain. The amygdala is that part of your brain that processes information and assigns corroborating emotions, while the cortex of your brain helps you decide how to act on those emotions. A negative feeling, like that of danger, can trigger the fight-or-flight-response in the amygdala resulting in the release of stress hormones. When the adrenaline kicks in, it leads to an increased heart rate, heightened blood pressure and shortness of breath. Symptoms can also include a racing heart, shaking, sweating and nausea. The amygdala also keeps a record of similar situations that have occurred throughout your life that triggered similar emotional responses in you. Just understanding the biology of why this happens helped as I could visualize what processes my brain was going through.
After a few sessions of talking through my issues, my attacks became less frequent, and over time they disappeared completely. I also focused more on reducing stress by changing jobs and taking more time for self-care. I honestly needed the support of speaking to an expert, and my only regret was not doing it sooner.