Fearne Cotton opens up about her recent panic attack: what to do if you suffer from them

Fearne Cotton has opened up about her recent panic attack, pictured here, attending the Tusk Conservation Awards in November, 2019 in London. (Getty Images)

Fearne Cotton has shared an emotional Instagram post revealing she has suffered her first panic attack in months amid the ongoing coronavirus lockdown.

Sharing a picture of herself from her bathroom, the 38-year-old confessed that the symptoms of the attack started once she got into bed, and her heart started racing.

She went on to explain she’d woken up feeling “bruised and fuzzy”.

In the accompanying caption, the TV star elaborated on what had happened: “I don't often feel comfortable posting stuff like this on here as these moments are best told in carefully written books or spoken aloud in context but hey, we're in weird times so all rules are out of the window.

Read more: Holly Willoughby details emotional rollercoaster of coronavirus lockdown

“Last night I had my first panic attack in months,” she continued. “It had been so long I had almost forgotten they can sneak up out of the blue, or pink, considering last night's moon.”

Fearne continued by explaining that her heightened state lasted for three hours before she managed to drift off to sleep, only to be woken by her son, Rex.

The radio presenter said her reason for sharing wasn’t to garner sympathy, but to help others who suffer from panic attacks know that they’re not on their own.

“I’m putting it out there for those who experience the same yet feel alone,” she wrote.

“I often feel I'm the only one who can’t do normal stuff like sleep well or stay calm in chaos so for all those in the same boat... we stand together. It'll pass, calm will resurface, it's just a road bump today, so for now we can feel tired and know that’s OK. Big love to you all whatever you’re going through today. Love and Peace.”

Read more: Protecting your mental health during lockdown

It isn’t the first time Fearne has opened up about her mental health battles. Last year, the presenter, who has refused to drive on the motorway since suffering a debilitating panic attack in in 2017, opened up about the realities of living with anxiety.

“I haven’t had a panic attack in a while, thank goodness,” she told The Independent. “But there was a period where I was having them all the time. I had a really bad patch about two years ago, where I was getting them every few days. I had a really heavy workload, my husband was away a lot and one of our friends was really poorly. I was just so stretched and tired.

“I think that’s what triggers them for me. Sometimes they just come out of the blue, but it’s usually just a warning sign that I’m doing too much and I’m not rested enough. They are a pain in the arse.”

The star went on to detail how it feels when an attack takes hold: “When I feel [a panic attack] coming on, I’ll get quite hot and then the next thought is ‘I’m going to faint, any minute now I’m going to faint’.

“That always happens in a situation when it would be catastrophic for me to faint, like in a car, or on live TV.” 

Earlier this month, practitioners and campaigners revealed that the coronavirus epidemic was causing increased stress and anxiety, particularly among people with existing mental health problems.

Stephen Buckley, head of information at the mental health charity Mind, said: “We know that the coronavirus and its impact are causing stress and worry for many people. If you already have a mental health problem, it’s possible that the worries of coronavirus may be affecting how you’re coping.”

What is a panic attack?

“Panic attacks are an exaggeration of the body’s usual reaction to danger, stress or excitement,” Buckley tells Yahoo UK. “They can be triggered by stressful places, situations or events, but some people may experience a panic attack without any clear trigger.”

Buckley says a panic attack can be differentiated from other anxiety symptoms by its intensity and duration of symptoms. 

“Panic attacks can be frightening, especially if you’ve never experienced one before and don’t know what’s happening.

“They’re associated with physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, nausea, sweating and sometimes chest pains which can feel difficult to control, but there are ways to cope with them.”

What to do if you're suffering from panic attacks during coronavirus pandemic. (Getty Images)

What to do if you are suffering from panic attacks during coronavirus pandemic

Pause and observe your thoughts

“If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack,” Dr Donna Grant, consultant psychiatrist at Priory’s Chelmsford Hospital advises. “Then pause for moment, observe your thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to these thoughts and anxiety.

“These feelings are normal - it’s just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to. It's important to see the situation through. Stick with the panic; it will pass.”

Learn to control your breathing

People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains.

“By learning to slow your breathing down, you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle,” Dr Grant says.

She advises trying to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then breathing out for three seconds.

“As you breathe, ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem,” she adds.

Buckley says it can also be helpful to focus on your senses. “Noting what you can see, hear, smell, taste and feel can help to bring you back from feelings of panic,” he explains.

Learn to use positive coping statements

When you are feeling anxious and panicky Dr Grant says it can be helpful to have ‘coping statements’, which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn’t harmful.

She suggests statements could be:

- Panic is simply high levels of anxiety

- By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring

- My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn’t last forever

“Reminding yourself of these facts can help to prevent further panic cycles happening,” Dr Grant adds.

Tell someone

“If you live with others, let them know what they can do to support you next time you experience a panic attack, whether it's helping you sit down, getting you a glass of water, or helping you to control your breathing,” says Buckley.

“If you live alone, try to have a plan in place of what you will do until it passes. For example, plan a safe space in your home that you can go to while you're self-isolating, or an outside space such as a garden, if you have one.

“You could also ask a family member or friend that you trust to be your on-call person and they can support your remotely via a video or phone call and help you to work on your breathing.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has caused many to experience increased anxiety. (Getty Images)

Shift your focus

Many things can go through your mind during a panic attack, often very negative thoughts. “Rather than focusing on these, try to concentrate on something else such as looking at a picture or something that interests or comforts you,” Dr Grant suggests.

Alternatively, you could try creative visualisation. “To do this, think of a place or situation that makes you feel relaxed or comfortable. Once you have the image in your mind, focus your attention on it and this should distract you from the panic which should then help ease your symptoms,” she explains.

Challenge unhelpful thoughts

According to Dr Grant the way we think about things has an impact on panic. “Many of these thoughts are out of our control and can be negative and unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts and are not necessarily facts,” she says.

Even though we may believe a lot of the unhelpful thoughts during a panic attack, Dr Grant says these thoughts should be challenged as they are often based on incorrect assumptions. For example, misinterpreting the physical changes in the body during panic as ‘I'm having a heart attack’.

“To challenge and answer this negative thought, you would ask: what could you have said to yourself that would have helped?” she continues

“Becoming aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you recognise that you have them.”

Dr Grant suggests that keeping a diary of what happens each time you panic can help you to spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you, so that you can think about how to deal with these situations in the future.

How to help someone who is suffering from a panic attack

It can be alarming for a friend or family member to see someone experiencing a panic attack.

According to Life coach and resilience specialist Shelley Crawford you can help someone in a panic attack by being calm and gentle, using a soothing voice and trying not to come across as patronising.

“It’s important to not say ‘just calm down’,” she says. “Instead try to get the person to a quiet place away from others and encourage them to breathe with you.

“If you are not physically in their presence (i.e. online) you can still do this exercise.

“For instance, you might say ‘I can see you’re feeling really panicked right now. Can you try to take a breath? We can do it together. We could try to breathe in for a few counts, hold the breath for a few counts and then breathe out slowly. 

“‘This can help you with the feelings you’re feeling right now. Can you try to focus just on drawing that breath in slowly?

“‘Let’s give it a go – try to breathe in with me…breathing in 2,3,4. Okay great…now hold it for a couple of counts..good..now breathe out a little slower..breathing out for 2,3,4,5.  Do you want to try that again?’”

For support, tips and advice about mental wellbeing visit Mind at www.mind.org.uk/coronavirus