Having suffered panic attacks for 10 years, Zane Wilson could have easily thrown her hands in despair. Instead, pain led to creativity. She formed a support group to help others face their deepest fears, and is today free of the painful episodes that traumatized her life.
Today, this support group, which started in the hallowed halls of the Sandton library in Johannesburg initially attended by a group of 80 people 20 years ago, is the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), founded by Wilson, a South African businesswoman.
“I started the group and soon had to get a second phone, which rang night and day. I have had calls from people all over Africa looking for help. I have never had an attack since.”
Wilson’s first experience of a panic attack was on the highway, on her way to a business meeting.
“I suddenly felt hot. My palms started sweating. I started shaking and my heart started beating fast. I was terrified, but couldn’t understand why. I thought I was losing my mind,” recalls Wilson.
The attacks got worse, at times going up to three or more episodes a day.
“I was the director of a very busy company and had more and more attacks. I became acutely suicidal.”
She sought medical help, which included blood tests, assessments, even a lumbar puncture, and attended counselling, but they were all in vain. It got to a point where she couldn’t lead a normal life.
“I couldn’t even go to a shopping mall or a grocery store without an attack starting. I was determined to keep working and my husband had to follow me to work and I’d come back with staff. It reached a point where I couldn’t even be at home on my own. I would have to be dropped off at a neighbor’s. Eventually I was sent to a professor of psychiatry and he told me that I was suffering from panic attacks,” says Wilson.
This is a route most victims are familiar with. According to SADAG, South Africans will, on average, visit 11 doctors and spend over R20,000 ($1,800) on medical investigations before arriving at the diagnosis.
Recent research points to strong genetic or hereditary factors that might predispose some to paralyzing panic. Attacks can be triggered by non-biological factors too. Stressful experiences, caffeine, cold and flu medications, Lariam (the anti-malarial drug), appetite suppressants and local anaesthetics containing adrenaline may cause attacks that last an average of four to six minutes.
Clinical psychologist Lee-Ann Hartman says of all the disorders within the spectrum of anxiety and depression, panic attacks are the most treatable. With the right therapy, she claims 90% of people recover greatly and the remaining 10% can experience significant recovery.
“It’s very important to seek help early on, as once it starts developing, the sufferer will associate the panic attack with a certain place, person or situation. Mental illness as a whole is greatly underestimated and grossly under-resourced. In South Africa, one in 10 people suffer from HIV/Aids – whereas one in three people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.
“People suffer in silence and among high-achieving women, there is always the fear it will be seen as a weakness.”
Hartman says that a panic attack is a false alarm set off by our innate ‘fight or flight’ instinct where a slew of hormones are released.
“When the fight or flight response happens in an appropriate situation, you don’t think about your trembling, increased heart rate… But when it comes out of the blue for no reason, your cognitive interpretation is ‘what is happening to me, am I having a heart attack’?”
She recommends a full medical to determine the underlying physiological – and psychological – factors.
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