How we learned to live with our anxiety attacks
After Prince Harry spoke out about suffering from panic attacks following the death of his mum, Princess Diana, Karen Ireland talks to two women who applaud his efforts to help break down the stigma attached to a mental illness both have struggled with for years.
'Panic caused me to pass out and now my daughter suffers too'
Former model Kelly Anne McKendry (39) is a florist at La Maison de Fleur in Killyleagh. She lives in the town and is mum to Tiegan (19) and Felicity Boo (11). She says:
I remember clearly the first time I had a panic attack. I was in third year at school but had been off for three months with kidney problems. When I was well again I had moved to a new school that was co-ed. It was very different to the all-girl school I had been in previously.
The new school environment made me feel anxious and I started to feel a tightness in my chest. It would get so bad that I would hyperventilate and then pass out.
While I didn't really think that much about it after the first attack, then it began to happen all the time.
Mostly, the anxiety would hit me when I was in school. I rarely had an attack anywhere else, unless it was in a crowded social environment.
It got to the point where I started to avoid school because I so worried about what would happen. I was constantly embarrassed and worried about it.
I didn't tell anyone what was going on, including my mum and dad. Neither of them knew what I was going through.
When I left school and went to college, things seemed to settle down. By the time I started going out with my first boyfriend, I rarely experienced a panic attack.
When I was 20 I had my first child, Tiegan, and the anxious feelings came back. I was fearful about being left with her at night. Her dad worked in the hospitality industry and wasn't home until late.
The panic was constant, and I was frightened that something would happen to her when she was sleeping.
I started to pass out again, and this made me feel even more fearful. What if I had an attack when I was on my own with my daughter? It became a vicious circle.
Eventually, I started to learn ways of coping, and would distract myself if I felt an attack coming on. Reading or writing helped me cope when the feeling hit.
I was still panicking and worrying a lot, even after I had my second daughter, Felicity.
I had a baby monitor in Tiegan's room until she was about 15 and with her younger sister until she was about eight.
That was the only way I could settle myself and get some sleep without being up all night worrying about them.
When we went on a family holiday to Spain, Felicity started to have panic attacks and couldn't breathe. I knew instantly what it was.
When she was on the plane, she had a serious attack. She took her seat belt off and became distressed. Even though I felt overwhelmed, I had to manage my anxiety and try and keep her calm.
The experience on holiday affected me too - I passed out several times during the holidays because I was worrying about Felicity. Because I didn't want Felicity to see me panicking, I would leave the room whenever I felt anxious.
Going home on the plane, I was petrified of her having another attack, and that it would trigger one in me too.
The panic attacks continued and especially when she was in P7 during her AQE year. She even had one on the morning of the first exam.
Thankfully, her school was supportive and gave her the space and time she needed to come round and regulate her breathing.
The pains in her chest were so severe, she believed there was something wrong with her heart.
We took her to the doctor, who diagnosed her as suffering from panic attacks.
Since then, she has had to learn, like I have, to identify the triggers and to try and manage things with distraction techniques.
Nonetheless, she worries so much about what is going on in the world that we can't have the news on in front of her. She just becomes too upset.
We have had to protect her, especially from the recent news events, as she would be distraught by it all.
Tiegan has always been good at talking to her. She is very logical and points out that while natural disasters, such as earthquakes, are terrible, there won't be any here. She presents a reasoned take on Felicity's fears, which really helps.
I am delighted that Prince Harry has spoken out about this, because it will help break down taboos. He has made it a part of growing up, and it can happen to anyone.
He admitted that he drank alcohol to help him cope, and I did that too. When I was working in as a model, while I appeared confident and outgoing on the outside, underneath I was hiding this big secret.
When I felt anxious, I would have downed a couple of drinks in quick succession to calm myself down. Of course, it didn't work. I just had to work my way through the attacks and to learn to cope with my feelings."
‘Positive thoughts help me control symptoms’
Anna Kissick (28), a medical receptionist, lives in Waringstown with her husband, Niall (30), and has three daughters, Emily (18 months) and five-week-old twins Isla and Tilly. She says:
My first panic attack happened when I was 17. I was sitting in an office and suddenly my chest got tight and I couldn’t breathe.
I rushed out of the office and into a storage cupboard and got into the foetal position. I had to sit like that until my breathing came back to normal.
I thought I was going to die and I was petrified. I didn’t know what was happening.
My doctor explained that I had suffered a panic attack when I told him what had happened.
After that, they became a regular occurrence when I was anxious or worried about anything. At school, they used to get me to blow into a brown paper bag.
The attacks always hit me when I was struggling to cope with anything.
As I’ve grown older and life has got busier, the attacks have got worse.
There is a stigma attached to panicking. I’ve found that the best way to cope is to talk things out with people close to me and have a good support network.
My husband has been fantastic. Initially, he felt there should be a way to cure the attacks, but there isn’t.
He has since learnt the best way to help is to support me, be there and just wait until it passes.
My doctor recommended cognitive behavioural therapy, which helped by providing coping mechanisms such as counting breaths and controlling breathing when an attack strikes.
In many cases, it’s about mind over matter and trying of think of something positive in the midst of the anxious feelings and letting that override the negativity.
I know how to manage my condition. I deal with an attack by filling my mind with positive thoughts and reassuring myself that nothing bad is going to happen to me.
Because I am reluctant to take medication, this has to be the way I cope.
I haven’t had a severe attack in a while. And when I had Emily, I worried about her seeing me panicking, so I’ve always tried to shield her from it. Life is good at the moment. I’m a new mum to twins, so it’s hectic but we are very blessed.
I haven’t had an attack since the twins were born. Maybe it’s because I am too busy to worry or get uptight.
I try and focus on the good things that are going on in our lives.
I decided to talk about suffering panic attacks, because I’m always telling others that it’s good to talk, so that applies equally to me.
Prince Harry has helped to break the stigma and has shown that this can happen to anyone. Anything that raises awareness and gets people talking is good.
My advice to anyone suffering is this: be open and accept it is a medical condition — it’s not your fault.
Like any other ailment, it needs treatment.
Panic attacks can be very distressing, but you can learn to deal with them and find your own coping mechanisms."