Since Sibahle Khumbuza, 24, started experiencing panic attacks from the age of 19, her mother has been struggling to accept her condition to the point where Khumbuza had to hide her attacks from her.
“My mom refused to accept that I have a panic disorder; she told me that she would not have a child on medication for mental illness at a young age. She told me to deal with the attack whenever it happened, but it was not that simple or easy,” Khumbuza says.
To avoid having to be told to deal with the condition, Khumbuza would shy away from sharing her daily attacks with her family, because she felt like they did not take her condition seriously.
July is recognised as Mental Health Awareness Month - a time to spread awareness and encourage people to speak out about their mental health issues.
The SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) says people who suffer from anxiety and panic disorders need to know that there is help available to them.
Panic disorder is a real illness, but as scary as it feels, it is not life-threatening, and there is help.
Clinical psychologist Dr Colinda Linde explains that a panic attack is an acute episode where frightening symptoms such as the shortness of breathe, heart racing, and dizziness appear out of the blue.
Sufferers start fearing that another attack will happen, and it consumes their mind, making them avoid any activity that triggers an attack. When this happens, Linde cautions, family members and friends must not tell sufferers to snap out of it or not to worry. This is the person’s fight/flight response being triggered, and the symptoms are acute.
Anyone can suffer from panic disorder, which is a combination of a biological vulnerability and genetic factors, including other environmental factors such as prolonged stress, lack of sleep and exercise, and bad lifestyle, Linde says.
She explains that over time the pressure builds up and there is a random event which pushes the body into panic mode, bringing on new and unusual symptoms. It could be low blood sugar, the extra coffee or a piece of fish for example that didn’t agree with the person that then starts the symptoms, which leads to anxiety and triggers even more adrenalin in a vicious cycle.
Linde says studies suggest it is more prevalent in women, who tend to seek help and speak out about it more. Also, there is a stronger hormonal factor in women, which may play a role.
Khumbuza says although it was hard for her mother to accept her condition at first, she has learnt to speak out, as the family is now coming to terms with her mental health condition and is more supportive.
There is no way to stop the first panic attack, as you cannot predict the episodes, says Linde. Once they have happened, it is best to seek treatment that works.
When it happens, Sadag suggests:
Sitting upright because it is better than lying down or “slouching”, as it can increase the capacity of your lungs to fill with air.
The person can also control their rate of breathing: if possible, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth in a steady rhythm.
Breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. This helps to empty your lungs of old air and to make as much room in your lungs for fresh oxygen-rich air.
If possible, try to distract your mind and try to concentrate on pleasant, peaceful thoughts. Some people find it easier to distract their mind by watching TV or listening to music. If persistent anxiety is a problem which you think is making your breathing worse, then seek medical attention.