Panic Attack

On the morning of my first violin exam I remember there was only myself and my Mum in the house. Maybe it was a school day. I came downstairs and went into the kitchen, violin case in hand, and as my supportive, loving Mum asked if I was ready to go, coat on, I had a panic attack.

I say ‘panic attack’ because I don’t know how else to describe it. It had never happened before but all of a sudden I was crippled with fear and anxiety that I was going to fail and I couldn’t leave. I just cried and cried that I didn’t want to go and I remember feeling like it was never going to end. Fortunately for me my Mum was not only a Super-Mum but also a trained Nurse who in her day to day life dealt with many extraordinary situations with ease and sensitivity so she sat down and said ‘If you don’t want to go then we won’t go’. As I remember it she calmly waited for me to stop crying. I calmed down and given the option I chose to go to my violin exam which I passed.

It didn’t happen again. We just carried on like nothing had happened which in hindsight I do actually think was the best thing to do. To shine a light on these experiences can often cause more distress than the actual experience in the first place especially if it was a one off which this was. I had forgotten about it until a few years ago when something happened on a job that forced me to remember and even then I just assumed I had conquered my stage fright in one foul swoop. I had cured myself. I’m now a professional actress who suffers very little in the way of nerves. I like to get things ‘right’ which doesn’t always help me but I’m more than capable of having a nap or a good chin wag back stage before my entrance with no qualms at all.

Then the weirdest thing, the other day, it happened again. Fully thirty years after the first one I found myself in someone else’s house crying uncontrollably, with a plate full of food in front of me that I badly needed but was unable to eat. As I rang friends, who busy with their own lives did not answer their phones, my panic grew. I became more and more distressed as I realised the only person who would actually answer the phone was my Mum; the one person I did not want to call as I didn’t want to upset her with my upset.

I’ve absolutely worked myself into the ground over the last few months. It’s hard not to in this industry. You fight and fight for a glimpse of an audition and then all of a sudden when loads of work is thrust in your direction it becomes impossible to say no. What if I am never in this position again? What if I have no work for the next year? What if? What if? What if?

Fear takes over. Panic sets in. I overbooked myself feeling satisfied and successful but then struggled to follow through with all the bookings (I did pass out last week hitting my head on a sharp desk corner as I fell after doing three jobs in one day but that’s fine I’M FINE) I then find myself feeling completely miserable when all of a sudden the diary is blank. The positivity I’ve been exerting so much energy on has dissolved and all that’s left is that seven year old sitting in the kitchen clutching her violin unable to stop crying.

Fortunately for me my wonderful Mum still answers her phone and once again she stoically listened to me howl as I failed to eat the fast congealing over-priced vegetarian breakfast Deliveroo had cycled over to me until I calmed down.

I’ve witnessed these sort of attacks before not really knowing what to do and at times even questioning their authenticity. It’s a very difficult thing to explain; that feeling. I’m still carrying it around with me now, that fear and recent emotional memory hovering under the surface trying to convince me that all is lost. I can feel it in my chest. No wonder some people suffer frequently from this all-consuming sadness that doesn’t want to go away. It takes great strength not to go into that feeling every second especially, I imagine, if it’s brought on by a traumatic event like assault.

I suppose it is a return to that ‘fight or flight’ state that therapists love to talk about so much. A nervous system so well-schooled in an addiction to intensity that an extreme emotional reaction ends up being the only place left to go. Ultimately it comes from fear. We are all afraid, all the time. This isn’t helped by the society we have created for ourselves that seems to feed on peoples fear urging us to buy the right food, watch the right programmes, vote for the right cause. For such an emotional race we are incredibly insensitive to our own humanity. Even now I am frustrated with myself for having got so upset, for not handling my workload better, for pulling my arse cheek in that dance audition last week.

That’s another story.

I’m a very lucky person. I’m lucky that I had so much work that I completely exhausted myself. I’m lucky that I have a Mum who I can call and cry to. And I am extremely lucky that I have the tools and support in place to deal with the aftermath of my panic or anxiety attack and move on from it without it becoming a habit.

Not everybody is as lucky as me. When you go out into the world try being as sensitive as possible with the other people you come across because that girl you were rude to in Starbucks who got your name wrong might be crying in the toilet right now. And if you are that person experiencing that pain then I urge you to have enough love for yourself to take yourself home, make a cup of tea and allow your nervous system time to recuperate. Seek help when you need it.

We all need it sometimes.

Janna Fox is a writer and actress. For more information please visit www.jannafox.com

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