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How two women beat the crippling panic attacks that almost destroyed their lives

As reports suggest anxiety is on the rise, a Lurgan mum and a Belfast hairdresser reveal the harrowing impact the condition had on them and the steps they took to get better

By Karen Ireland and Stephanie Bell

Published 01/12/2015

Helping others: Lyndsey Laffins hopes to train as a psychologist
Helping others: Lyndsey Laffins hopes to train as a psychologist

One in 10 people have occasional panic attacks, according to a report published by the Northern Ireland Association of Mental Health.

It is a condition called panic disorder which leads to panic attacks, and frequency of these episodes can vary.

Symptoms often include palpitations and don't necessarily need a trigger so the cause is not clear.

Stressful life events such as a bereavement can set off a panic attack, and sufferers can often become agoraphobic as they fear an attack may strike when they are not in a safe place.

Treatments vary from antidepressants to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). We talk to two woman about how this debilitating and frightening condition affected their lives and how they are fighting back.

Unlike most of her friends Lyndsey Laffins (30), a single mum from Lurgan, does not have fond memories of her teenage years. Far from carefree, the Co Armagh mum had her first panic attack at just 13 years old.

Since then she has been battling with serious mental illness, which she says has spiralled out of control.

Now a second year psychology student, Lyndsey, who is mum to son Kaine (11) and is six months' pregnant with her second child, is determined to speak out about the taboos which robbed her of her teenage years.

"I had my first panic attack in a shop when I was just 13," recalls Lyndsey.

"At the time I didn't know what was happening. My chest tightened and I couldn't breathe. I was sweating and my head was really light. I just knew I had to get out of the shop and away from people.

"After that they started happening more and more regularly.

"I was anxious all the time and would have an attack if I was in school or out and about shopping. I even had them when I was alone in my bedroom. I would just be overcome with thoughts of despair and anxiety and then the whole process would start all over again."

Frightened and vulnerable, Lyndsey says she became very withdrawn and isolated but her anxiety was mistaken for bad behaviour and she was labelled as a troublemaker at home and at school.

"I was scared to go out. So I found a new friend - alcohol gave me the confidence to face people and socialise and I started drinking to hide the panic that was deep within me."

For several years Lyndsey recalls her life was dominated by panic attacks and alcohol misuse, until things reached a horrifying climax when she was 17.

"I was alone in my bedroom and all these thoughts of fear and dread started to come over me," she says. "I couldn't breathe and I just wanted to end it all. I cut myself very badly and ended up being rushed to hospital."

A six-week stay followed, which revealed that she was suffering from serious mental health issues and alcohol addiction.

She was transferred to an alcohol dependency unit and started seeing a psychiatrist.

"I stopped drinking and started talking about my problems," she says.

"It was a real weight off my shoulders just to talk to someone and realise that I wasn't going mad. I was ill."

Lyndsey was put on medication and slowly started piecing her life back together again.

She had her son Kaine and she says for a while life was good. She even managed to get a job in a factory.

"What I didn't realise then was the addiction and the mental health problems were going to be with me for the rest of my life. I fell off the wagon many times and spiralled back into anxiety and panic attacks," she says.

"Eventually I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and that changed my life. It helped me realise that I was an addict and I needed help and support. With the help of my GP and mental health support worker I got on the right medication and started a journey to recovery."

Lyndsey has stopped drinking and is now pregnant with her partner Paul's baby. She is studying with the Open University and hopeful about the future.

"I still have the odd panic attack, especially now as my medication has had to be lowered as I am pregnant but I have learnt techniques for coping with an attack now," she says.

"I pray a lot and I have learnt how to control my breathing and to bring myself round.

"My family has also been extremely supportive and now we know what it is, we can deal with it better.

"I know to talk to someone as soon as I feel the thoughts coming on. I want to train to become a psychologist so I can help others. I think I will be better placed to do that as I have been there and understand it. I won't let fear control my life any more. The key is to find the right support services and to get help and to talk about it."

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Belfast business woman Sharyn Rankin endured 10 years of crippling anxiety and panic attacks, which eventually became so unbearable that last October she suffered a nervous breakdown.

Now, just over a year later, the 40-year-old is taking the pressures of life in her stride and is free from panic attacks for the first time in a decade after discovering the power of mindfulness.

Sharyn (40), who runs her own hairdressing salon, Sharyn Rankin Hair and Beauty on Belfast's Woodstock Road, says life is still challenging as she goes through a messy divorce, but the difference is that she now knows how to deal with it.

"My life was hell. People don't realise how bad panic attacks are. You think you are going to die and it is so bad that you just want them to take you," she says.

"I now practice mindfulness every day and that is the key, you have to do it every day and sometimes it is hard and you have to make yourself do it, but it really works. I can deal with things much better."

Sharyn started to suffer from anxiety shortly after she married in 2005.

She was in a difficult relationship, which triggered the illness and, despite medication and counselling, she found every day a struggle.

She put on a brave face for the sake of her six-year-old daughter, Daisy - who still has no idea her mum has been so ill - but once Daisy was tucked up in bed at night, Sharyn would break down in tears as she buckled under the pressure of her day. She recalls: "My panic attacks were so severe that I would have been hospitalised quite a lot.

"They came on out of the blue for no apparent reason and I probably had one a week. To me, anxiety and panic attacks are two different things and I wouldn't have had a panic attack every day, but I suffered from anxiety on a daily basis.

"I lived in a permanent state of anxiety, my heart would have been racing and I always felt jittery and had feelings of fear, but I didn't know why.

"Last October, my body just shut down, I couldn't think and I just couldn't cope with the pressure any more. I think it was my body's way of telling me that I needed to slow down.

"I could feel the build up to it and I kept working and pushing until I couldn't take anymore. I was under a lot of pressure and my body went into meltdown. Mum found me lying on my settee and got me to hospital."

It was while in hospital that she heard about a mindfulness course run by Brenda Shankey, a Belfast businesswoman who had trained Sharyn as a hairdresser when she was 15.

Sharyn has had counselling over the years, but felt it didn't help and when she was offered counselling last October, she turned it down.

Instead, she enrolled in Brenda's 10-week mindfulness course, which she says has transformed the quality of her life.

"Mindfulness has saved my life and it has saved my mental health. It has given me a completely different outlook. I haven't had a panic attack since I started to practise it.

"It has changed how I think about myself and other people and different situations I find myself in. I meditate every night before I go to bed and if I feel a bit anxious I will just stop and practice mindfulness.

"It has taught me how to sit still and ground myself. I am much calmer now and I don't take everything to heart the way I used to. I'm able to think more clearly and my head feels free from that kind of intense worry.

"All the negative thoughts that were causing my anxiety have gone. I'm still going through my divorce and it is very hard, but I can deal with it. Brenda also taught me not to talk about things that make me anxious. If something had happened to upset me, I would have spent the day telling everybody over and over again about it. Now, I know just to let it go."

After years of crying herself to sleep, Sharyn is amazed at how practising mindfulness for a short period every day has cured her of the worst affects of her illness.

She is speaking publicly about the turmoil she has come through in the hope it might help others struggling with anxiety.

"It is eye-opening and I am still going through some tough times in my life, but now I know how to cope, it has changed my life so much," she adds.

"I have learnt, too, to engage with people and give them my full attention when I am with them, rather let my mind race with other thoughts.

"I still have a cry now and again - but when I do, it is done and over and I get on with things and don't wallow in it.

"Living with anxiety and panic attacks is hell and I'd recommend that anyone going through it should try mindfulness."

Belfast Telegraph

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