DR MAX THE MIND DOCTOR: I’ve had a panic attack like Fearne – and I thought I was going to die 

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One day, when I was walking to a lecture at medical school, my head started to spin and my heart was beating so fast I thought my chest would burst.

I was shaking and couldn’t breathe — I simply couldn’t get any air into my lungs. The fear was overwhelming and I thought I was dying. It was the only rational explanation.

I sank to the pavement, but within about ten minutes the episode had passed. I worried that it might happen again though — and the next day it did.

TV Presenter and radio DJ Fearne Cotton (above) admitted she is still too scared to drive her car on the motorway after having a panic attack at the wheel more than two years ago. I think the reason these attacks are not taken seriously is because the perception is that sufferers are merely worried about something and work themselves into a bit of a state

TV Presenter and radio DJ Fearne Cotton (above) admitted she is still too scared to drive her car on the motorway after having a panic attack at the wheel more than two years ago. I think the reason these attacks are not taken seriously is because the perception is that sufferers are merely worried about something and work themselves into a bit of a state

This continued for several weeks and I began to dread leaving the house.

My GP checked my heart and said it was fine, but I knew something was very wrong.

Eventually, one of my physiology professors, who witnessed an episode, explained that I was having a panic attack and suggested psychotherapy.

In my case it turned out that the lightheadedness I experienced before my first panic attack was a side-effect of some antibiotics I was taking for a chest infection. 

So I stopped taking the tablets and had about six sessions of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of psychotherapy) which thankfully sorted the problem. I haven’t had another attack since.

Sufferers often think they are having a heart attack as the symptoms ¿ rapid breathing, chest pains, and pins and needles ¿ are very similar. Yet despite the fact that anxiety disorders are so common, they are rarely discussed and often not taken seriously by doctors [File photo]

Sufferers often think they are having a heart attack as the symptoms — rapid breathing, chest pains, and pins and needles — are very similar. Yet despite the fact that anxiety disorders are so common, they are rarely discussed and often not taken seriously by doctors [File photo]

I’ll never forget how scary it was, however, which is why I can really sympathise both with TV presenter and radio DJ Fearne Cotton, who this week spoke about her own struggle with panic attacks, and the many patients I’ve seen over the years who suffer from this debilitating problem.

Panic attacks are part of a larger group of conditions termed ‘anxiety disorders’, and are the most common mental health condition — even more common than depression, although the two often go hand in hand.

There are several types ranging from specific phobias, such as fear of flying, for example, to generalised anxiety, when the sufferer experiences a constant sense of dread and fear. People often have more than one type.

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The physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by the body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode. 

As your body tries to get more oxygen, your breathing increases, your heart starts racing and this, in turn, causes you to panic more, making the symptoms worse. It’s a vicious circle.

Sufferers often think they are having a heart attack as the symptoms — rapid breathing, chest pains, and pins and needles — are very similar.

Panic attacks are part of a larger group of conditions termed ¿anxiety disorders¿, and are the most common mental health condition ¿ even more common than depression, although the two often go hand in hand [File photo]

Panic attacks are part of a larger group of conditions termed ‘anxiety disorders’, and are the most common mental health condition — even more common than depression, although the two often go hand in hand [File photo]

Yet despite the fact that anxiety disorders are so common, they are rarely discussed and often not taken seriously by doctors. 

So it is good that celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and pop star Will Young, have spoken so openly about their struggles to help draw attention to this much misunderstood mental health problem.

Fearne Cotton admitted she is still too scared to drive her car on the motorway after having a panic attack at the wheel more than two years ago.

I think the reason these attacks are not taken seriously is because the perception is that sufferers are merely worried about something and work themselves into a bit of a state. But this isn’t what it is like at all — you genuinely feel as though you are about to die.

Panic attacks can have an enormous impact on lives because sufferers feel isolated and ashamed.

They will go out of their way to avoid the situations that have triggered an attack, although in the long run this can make the problem worse, as they learn to associate a place or activity with an attack — just as I did when I approached the lecture theatre.

But the good news is that panic attacks can be treated with therapy and self-help techniques.

With the right treatment people can — and do — get better. I’m proof of it!

Why over-65s have a drinking problem

While more and more teenagers are eschewing alcohol, older people are drinking more, according to alarming new research.

The survey by New York University into the drinking habits of nearly 11,000 over-65s found that one in ten is a binge drinker, a trend that is mirrored in the UK.

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Binge drinking is classified as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks a day. But because we don’t associate older people (particularly the middle classes) with excessive drinking, few of them realise that they have a problem.

The survey by New York University into the drinking habits of nearly 11,000 over-65s found that one in ten is a binge drinker, a trend that is mirrored in the UK. Binge drinking is classified as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks a day [File photo]

The survey by New York University into the drinking habits of nearly 11,000 over-65s found that one in ten is a binge drinker, a trend that is mirrored in the UK. Binge drinking is classified as consuming five or more alcoholic drinks a day [File photo]

A friend told me his mother finally came to terms with her alcohol problem when a neighbour saw her putting wine bottles in the recycling bin and said: ‘Goodness, that was a big party.’

She was mortified — there hadn’t been a party. She’d drunk them all that week. But too many older people refuse to accept they have a problem, preferring to believe that some mean-spirited mandarin in Whitehall has dreamed up alcohol limits to spoil their fun. 

They ignore the fact that the recommendations are designed to limit the damage alcohol does to the body.

Alcohol is a poison and while some people dodge its effects, many, many don’t.

One of my first jobs in medicine was working on a liver unit in a large inner-city hospital. 

I was shocked to see accountants, lawyers, doctors and teachers with liver failure. They couldn’t believe drinking was the cause of their health problems — until it was too late.

Put care home chiefs in the dock

Prosecutions over unsafe care homes and NHS hospitals have risen by more than a third in the past year, according to the latest figures. 

In my view this is because authorities such as the Care Quality Commission — the government health watchdog — are finally listening to concerns about poor standards and demands for those responsible to be held to account.

We also need to ruthlessly pursue the owners of care homes and managers of hospitals. It is only when those in charge realise the buck stops with them that standards will improve [File photo]

We also need to ruthlessly pursue the owners of care homes and managers of hospitals. It is only when those in charge realise the buck stops with them that standards will improve [File photo]

I want to see even more prosecutions. Staff who abuse or neglect elderly patients should face criminal prosecution, as well as a lifetime ban on working in the healthcare sector. 

We should be sending an even clearer message that abuse will not be tolerated by doubling the sentence if the victim is vulnerable, or the abuser is in a caring role.

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We also need to ruthlessly pursue the owners of care homes and managers of hospitals. It is only when those in charge realise the buck stops with them that standards will improve.

Moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. But it never occurred to me that it might also affect physical health.

A study from Washington University found women who move during the first trimester of a pregnancy are more than 40 per cent more likely to have a premature baby.

Moving also increases by a third the risk of their baby being low weight. Expectant couples often move into a new, family-sized home before their baby arrives.

It might be better to wait until after the child is born.

Moving house is one of life¿s most stressful experiences. But it never occurred to me that it might also affect physical health [File photo]

Moving house is one of life’s most stressful experiences. But it never occurred to me that it might also affect physical health [File photo]

A betrayal of victims

Claire Waxman, the London Victims’ Commissioner, has voiced concern that many rape victims are dropping their cases when they discover that defence barristers can access their therapy records and dredge up information about their past to present in court.

This not only deters women from taking their cases to court, but will also inevitably affect what they feel able to discuss with their therapist.

Therapy only works if patients know that everything they say is in the strictest confidence: if they can’t be open, they won’t get the most out of their treament. 

Access to therapy records is a gross violation of privacy and should never be allowed in court.

Dr Max prescribes…

C4’s Dispatches: Young, British and depressed

In just 30 minutes, this documentary managed to deftly tackle a thorny question: why are so many of today’s youngsters struggling with their mental health? 

It’s a difficult and sensitive topic, but the conclusion — that increasing awareness of mental health problems has resulted in everyday difficulties and distress being labelled as ‘mental illness’ — was compelling.

The programme argued that this created a sense of inevitability that such problems were the norm and discouraged youngsters from building resilience. 

It was a brave and bold piece of television and we need more programmes like it.

This episode of Dispatches is available on Channel 4’s catch-up service All 4.



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