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Source: Beth Evans

Some advice from Breaking Mad and Mind ambassador Anna Williamson

Since beating her own anxiety disorder, TV presenter Anna Williamson has trained as a life coach and is an ambassador for mental health charity Mind. In this extract from her new book Breaking Mad, she explains a few tactics to cope with panic attacks...


What do those words ‘panic attack’ conjure up for you? For me, it’s almost as bad as the feeling itself, and serves to evoke even more panic and anxiety. I wonder if whoever invented the terminology ever actually had a panic attack. I’m inclined to think not as I find it such an aggressive and negative moniker. Although, to be fair, that’s exactly what a panic attack can feel like ... a state of being ‘attacked’ by ‘panic’. (I still don’t think the name is helpful though.)

I find it such an aggressive and negative moniker.

So, the first thing I want us to do is to change this label. Words and their association can be hugely powerful, and key to how they make us feel, both consciously and subconsciously. This is why I’m going to help empower you to take charge of a dreaded ‘panic attack’ and knock the power out of it, starting from the grass roots. The name.

What’s in a name? quoth Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The star-crossed lover points out for us, hundreds of years later, that a name is ‘an artificial and meaningless convention’. When it comes to the vocabulary used in the mental health arena, I couldn’t agree more. ‘Panic attack ’, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder ’ , ‘self-harm’... it’s all pretty alarming stuff just by the wording alone, let alone the definition or how it can feel.

For me, being diagnosed with a ‘panic disorder’ and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’ was frankly petrifying, and more than a little dramatic with its professional label. So, the first thing I did – I changed it. I didn’t want to ‘be’ the label I was given, and God forbid accept it and hide behind it as a lifelong excuse for people to pigeonhole and feel sorry for me. Not going to happen. When you take the power out of something, it can go a long way to dissolving a lot of the impact it has.

So for example, I changed the word ‘panic’ to ‘energy’, and the word ‘attack’ to ‘overload’... how much less scary is it to think of a panic attack as an ‘energy overload’, it sounds almost positive doesn’t it? Most importantly it really worked for me, so I’m hoping it might for you too.


Have a brainstorm either in your head or on a piece of paper... what do the words ‘panic attack ’ mean to you? Write down or think of as many words as you can ... how does it feel? What does it look like? Does it have a sound or sensation? Perhaps it smells or tastes of something? Next up, either on a new piece of paper or in your head, have a think of some new words you can use to describe ‘panic attack ’ but in a more positive, less negatively emotionally-charged way i.e. another way to describe ‘panic’ is ‘excitement’ or ‘adrenalin’. Another word for ‘attack’ could be ‘experience’ or ‘moment’.

Once you’ve come up with your new ‘nicer’ definitions, have a play around with the words and create your own, personal, new name for ‘panic attacks’. Notice how it feels thinking in this new way. Has it taken away some of the power and fear that you perhaps experienced before? Keep playing and experimenting with the new words, until you come up with something which feels right for you. From now on, every time you hear or read the words ‘panic attack’ (and that includes in this book), I want to you replace the label with your new, more agreeable one. Boom! You’ re in control my friend.



And when a panic attack (or whatever you now call it) is happening, here are some quick tips on how to deal with it:

BREATHE: Get your breathing under control – breathe in for 7 seconds (through your nose), pause, and then out for 11 seconds. This is the quickest way to calm any panic feelings down.

TIME OUT: Find a ‘safe’ place: i.e. a toilet cubicle, the car, a quiet corner, and allow any horrible feelings to just happen and pass over you – don’t fight it (it’ll go away quicker).

TELL A TRUSTED BUDDY: Confide in someone you feel comfortable with and tell them what you need in that moment (and what you don’t).

:: Anna Williamson's book Breaking Mad is out now.