How my panic attack whilst driving felt like an out of body experience.
When my anxiety began, I had no prior experience of panic attacks. At the time I had what I could only describe as an out-of-body experience. I hadn't considered myself an anxious person, worrier or over thinker. This panic attack felt like it came out of the blue. And it left me feeling panicked every time I got in the car. With a deep sense of dread that I would kill myself and everyone on the road. In this blog I’ll describe what led to my first panic attack. What my symptoms and experiences were. And how I accepted I needed to seek professional help.
What led to my first panic attack?
During my 30s I had worked my way up the career ladder. I was part of a global business and there were lots of opportunities to develop. Which I took eagerly. I thrived at multitasking. Leading a team of managers, which oversaw a larger team of people and revenue. I worked hard, and I lived an even fuller life outside of work.
I didn’t understand the concept of resting. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was a foreign concept. I considered it ‘lazy’ not resting. I wasn’t judging anyone else for doing it. Being more productive with my time felt more important.
To counteract the stress of the job I was a keen runner, hiker and had a busy social life. I did concede that perhaps I needed to rest a little more. So I forced myself to take baths. I honestly thought this might even the balance out. I also excelled at lying to myself. Not consciously but nevertheless. I actually believed I was doing everything right. And when things got harder I would double down on the things that had previously worked. Work harder, play harder.
My role was national and some weeks I’d travel as far north as Liverpool. Others as south as Plymouth with a few central London locations thrown in. My point is that there was a lot of travel. I maximised time on location, often absorbing a 2-hour drive before starting work with the team at 9 am. I saw this as leading from within. When in reality, I was slowly burning out. Completely blind to it, ignoring it.
So, when I started to feel ill this time, I did what I knew best, and I doubled down again. And this is where I think my mind and body stepped in to take over and force me to rest. I had a toothache, and because I didn’t make it a priority to see a doctor it developed into an ear infection. This wasn't just any old ear infection though. This one played with my balance and equilibrium, and I was left feeling nauseous all the time. You’d think this would stop me? It didn’t!
There was simply too much to do, work hard, play hard, right? Well, the playing had stopped because I was really ill. I did finally see the doctor who was incredulous at why it had taken me so long to book an appointment. But just before this happened I had the most bizarre out-of-body experience I had ever encountered. And when I described it to him even he didn’t recognize it as a panic attack.
My experience of a panic attack
I was driving home after another 12-hour day driving at 70mph on the motorway. I wasn't feeling completely right due to my ear infection and imbalance. I remember thinking 'If I can just make it home I’ll be OK'. But I didn’t make it home, at least not anytime soon.
It started as a rush of energy in my chest, and it felt like a ball of light picking up momentum. And whilst I was overtaking a HGV lorry in the fast lane, with both hands on the steering wheel. I felt this rush of energy leave my chest. Down my arms and out through my hands and with it a rush of adrenaline like I’d never felt before. At that moment I thought I was going to pass out, kill myself and everyone else on the road. This thought, Was clear and absolute! What if I passed out? I'd kill myself and everyone else on the road!
As I looked across the road to see if I could pull onto the hard shoulder. I was in a complete panic as the hard shoulder was closed due to motorway improvements. I was feeling dizzy, I had pins and needles in my hands, my heart was racing. With the dizziness I was convinced I was going to pass out. I was trying to take in what had just happened and see what my exit route was. Whilst I couldn’t get off or stop, I could see the services were only a mile away. I remember thinking ‘If I can just make it to them I’ll be okay’. I manoeuvred over to the inside lane and I took the exit. My plan was to get some food and a drink. 'My blood sugar was probably low after such a long day', I told myself.
As I ate and rested I managed to compose myself, I let the meal go down, and I decided to set off once again. As I pulled out of the car park I felt a little unsteady, but I pushed on. As I exited the slip road back onto the motorway I felt very out of sorts but promised myself I’d carry on and get home. ‘I’d be Okay once I was home’.
Two miles down the road I was in a state of total panic again. I had managed to pull onto another motorway, and I was crawling along at 20 mph. The thought of how far I still had to go was overwhelming. The rest of the drive home was a bit of a blur. I limped home on a few A roads, finally arriving home 1 hour longer than it ordinarily would have taken me. I went to bed thoroughly exhausted, and I fell straight to sleep.
To learn how to use breathing techniques to feel in control when driving see here.
Once awake the next morning I dressed for work, business as usual. Work hard, play hard. This time when I got in the car however, I didn’t feel safe. That lasting thought that I would pass out, kill myself and everyone else on the road remained. Each and every time I got in the car I was scared, frightened and the more I persisted the worse it got. As winter arrived I opted to get the train more and more, and I was hardly driving at all. Even driving a mile would leave me with complete overwhelm.
I’d never considered myself an anxious person. I didn’t really know what anxiety was, but I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to identify with. What scared me most was how occupied my mind now was. Trying to consider all the worst case scenarios. Considering how to avoid them or factor in a plan if they happened.
And it was exhausting, I’d never worked so hard. I was easily falling asleep at night. A welcome rest bite from how my mind was overthinking every situation, every possible outcome. Surprised by the new levels with which my mind could go to imagine the worst possible case. Things I’ve never thought of before.
These thoughts started to diversify. I started ruminating on conversations I’d had trying to consider what others thoughts were based on my comments. I second guessed decisions I’d made at work. Soon finding it harder to make basic decisions for the fear of what might happen. And I’d stopped saying yes to opportunities, shying away from a challenge. I cared less about things that were important to me. Despite all of this I was still kidding myself, that I had it under some kind of control. I looked in the mirror and I saw a shell of my former self. I felt like I was wearing a mask, just long enough to get through the day. Able to hold it long enough until I was home and safe. Anxiety had started to bleed into other areas of my life. Ones where I'd felt confident before. Places I'd never doubted myself before. This is when I knew I had to seek help.
At first, anxiety had been specific to driving, but soon I started second guessing and considering all options for everything in my life. I was no longer working hard or playing hard. I was burnt out. The extra time and overthinking it took to go anywhere and do anything was exhausting. I decided to stop lying to myself about what was happening and talk to my GP. Talking to him helped me to make some sort of order to it. Explaining how bad it had got helped me to see clearly how I wanted to resolve it. I already had an idea that hypnosis might help, I can’t remember now why I had this idea in my mind. By chance, I picked up a leaflet in the GP’s office that day. Whilst it wasn’t something he could recommend or prescribe he knew me well enough to know that if I thought it would help. It was the right course of action for me.
I didn't do much research (seeking to compare therapists in my area). I took immediate action and called to book a session. I had 4 sessions and right from the start I felt better. More equipped to get in the car and able to cope with my out of control thoughts. Better in control of my thoughts with tools to use when I felt anxious. I still found motorways a challenge. Over the sessions we worked through those thoughts and emotions I’d felt during the panic attack. Gradually I felt able to drive on more roads. Building my confidence on familiar roads and ultimately overcoming that fear of the M1.
I knew I’d finally cracked it when I accepted the challenge to work on a project in Australia for 3 weeks. With it my first chance to drive elsewhere since having had hypnotherapy. I’m glad to say I did it with ease. The flight was spent sleeping rather than worrying about the 1-hour drive at night and in the rain. Six months before I would have been in a total meltdown. One month later I conquered the French highway with ease.
I gained a clarity of mind from my hypnotherapy sessions. The hypnotherapist helped me to stop overthinking driving. Make clear changes to better help me to build my confidence to drive again. There are sometimes times when I felt anxious behind the wheel like anyone. I am, however, better equipped to overcome them and remain calm if and when they do arise.
What I have experienced from working with clients with anxiety. Therapists, GP's and counsellors provide a neutral position to discuss your darkest fears. It’s a space which is difficult for your friends and family to hold for you. They want to help you to make the changes. Professional help allows you the space to work through problems that affect you deeply. Ones which you might feel too vulnerable sharing with a friend. If this resonates with you and you’d like to talk about how anxiety affects you. Let’s chat.