Updated: Mar 2, 2022
"Call an ambulance, I think I am having a heart attack"
These were words that I never, in my wildest dreams, would imagine uttering at 39 years of age. Yet as I collapsed on the floor in my daughter's classroom, in front of my worried children, friends, other parents and teachers, these were the exact words that came out of my mouth.
No matter how hard I tried I could not get the air into my lungs to breathe properly, I had pins and needles all down my arms, my hands went numb so that I couldn't feel them and I had pains in my chest. My body went into shock and all I could do was lie down on the floor and wait for an ambulance while friends gathered up my children, contacted my husband and one stayed with me to keep me calm.
Working as a fitness instructor, eating well, drinking lots of water and highly sociable and outgoing, until that day I had not ever given my heart a moment's thought. Yet while I lay on the floor waiting for the ambulance, I truly believed that there was every possibility that I would die and that my poor children would forever be traumatised from me collapsing right in front of them.
When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics completed all their checks, it turned out I had just experienced my very first full blown panic attack. As the doctor explained to me later that day, I had probably shifted the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in my body over the previous few days when I had been highly anxious and was suffering from what I now know is called air hunger.
This can be caused by hormone fluctuations in perimenopause and it can sometimes feel as though you can't get the air into your lungs properly. We have hormone receptors all over our bodies, including our lungs, so when our hormones start to drop we can experience the feeling that it is harder to breathe. This is where I made my first mistake.
I was so panicked at the feeling of not being able to breathe deeply that I had spent the previous 3 days desperately trying to suck more air in. The doctor thinks eventually I had so much oxygen in my body that it had no choice but to shut down, hence the panic attack out of the blue. Turns out I should have been concentrating more on the exhale. But more on this later.
It was only after suffering this panic attack that a doctor first mentioned perimenopause to me. Until then I had seen the doctors over the previous few years due to bad insomnia, severe bloating at times and acute dizziness and vertigo. At no point in any of these chats had anyone discussed that my hormones could be causing it all. It was the anxiety and panic attack that made the doctor finally join the dots of everything that had been going on.
Unfortunately that panic attack was not in isolation and it led to a spell when I started to experience them regularly. Thankfully none of them were ever as severe again, I think knowing what it is was, did make a difference but it doesn't make them any less scary when they happen.
Since doing my menopause coaching qualification I have come to realise that this extreme anxiety is surprisingly common in perimenopause and it is often considered one of the most debilitating of all the symptoms. It can become all pervading, it can seep into your daily life and it can cause you to become frightened to go out and live your life like you used to as the fear of the anxiety taking over or having a panic attack in public can become overwhelming.
For a very long time I was triggered every single time I went to pick my children up from school. Whereas previously I used to bounce into the playground and chat to lots of other mums, these days you are more likely to find me outside the gates, holding back and sometimes my hands will be firmly tucked into my pockets where I will be stroking a smooth stone or rubbing the ends of my thumb and middle finger together to help me keep calm.
And that is the trouble with anxiety. It is often invisible. You may have no idea that someone you are talking to is actually counting in their head to make sure they are exhaling properly and slowly. Far too many people suffer in silence and try to ignore it but I learnt the hard way that this is simply not a sustainable way to live.
So what can you do if you are suffering regularly from anxiety in midlife?
HERE ARE MY TOP 5 TIPS:
1. ACKNOWLEDGE IT
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to ignore the anxiety and hope that it will go away. This may work for a short time but your nervous system knows what is going on beneath the surface and it can end up bubbling away and building inside until it eventually explodes into a panic attack.
I studied a diploma in anxiety awareness so that I could learn how to live with mine and also help others and one of the tips they gave on my training was to give your anxiety a name. It is important to learn that it is only a part of you and does not define you.
So my example is that I have named my anxiety 'Anxious Agnes'. Next time you are feeling anxious and on edge, try stopping, acknowleding that feeling and saying to yourself "Oh hello Anxious Agnes, I see you have stopped in to say hello. It is kind of you to pop in but I would like to get on with my day now". You may feel crazy when you first say it but I promise you that if you get to your anxiety early it can really help!