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When Panic Attacks, Stress Reduction and Education Are Key to Control

Lisa Braithwaite refused to let anxiety's grip become a stranglehold

Lisa Braithwaite is nothing if not positive.

The public-speaking coach and Santa Barbara native practically oozes confidence when you meet her, and she has had her own speaking and coaching business since 2005. It’s hard to imagine anyone so upbeat struggling with anxiety, but that’s exactly what happened in 2008 when Braithwaite started having panic attacks.

A public-speaking coach by profession, Lisa Braithwaite may seem like an unlikely candidate for panic attacks but she's one of an estimated 6 million Americans who experience them. She has been sharing with Noozhawk readers her story of how she gained control of her condition.
A public-speaking coach by profession, Lisa Braithwaite may seem like an unlikely candidate for panic attacks but she’s one of an estimated 6 million Americans who experience them. She has been sharing with Noozhawk readers her story of how she gained control of her condition. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Triggered by an unknown reason, Braithwaite recognized the feeling immediately. Having survived a traumatic car accident nearly 20 years ago, she was able to mitigate the effects of panic attacks afterward through visualization and breathing techniques.

Nearly two decades later, the same symptoms drove Braithwaite to the emergency room seeking respite.

“That was an indication that those old tools weren’t working,” she explained.

Acknowledging she ignored the warning signs at first, Braithwaite eventually visited her therapist, who put her on a six-month course of medication. After a successful dose, she has tapered off the meds and now focuses on behavioral changes to mitigate stress. Exercising and making more time outside of work have been important elements of her strategy.

Braithwaite began to write about her experience, through her Speak Schmeak blog, one year after her panic attacks had resumed. For the past two days, she has shared her story with Noozhawk readers. Click here for Braithwaite’s first article Click here for her second article. Click here for the third article.

She weighed in on whether it would be detrimental to her business, even though the anxiety wasn’t related to public speaking. She even wondered whether she would be less credible with other professionals, but her decision to go forward came from her desire to help educate other people.

“I wanted people to know you can get on with your life,” she said. “And that people you wouldn’t expect deal with anxiety.”

The response from the community? “The only thing people have ever said about it is ‘good for you,’” she said. “All the feedback has been really positive.”

One man had started having panic attacks the same day he Googled the term and ended up on Braithwaite’s Web site. He told her he read her story and instantly began feeling better.

She advises anyone having anxiety issues to talk to a professional.

At first, Braithwaite waited to tell her family about her panic attacks. Once she did, however, she found out her mother suffered from them, too.

“I’m happy to say I’m OK getting in crowded elevators now,” Braithwaite laughed.

Also discovering that tight spaces and feeling claustrophobic can trigger an attack, she has worked to overcome those situations.

“I’m the same person I’ve always been,” she said.

A big test came three months ago when Braithwaite learned that her mother had had a heart attack and had flat-lined after doctors tried to resuscitate her. The doctors had pronounced her dead and her family had gathered around her bedside in Sacramento when she started to breathe again — on her own. Braithwaite herself wasn’t there, but when a family member told her about it, she didn’t start to panic.

“It was almost like a test for me,” she said.

Seeing her mother intubated in her hospital room was also a test, and watching her struggle with the tubes was difficult, but Braithwaite managed not to panic.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, about 6 million American adults have a panic disorder.

Panic attacks are also twice as likely to occur with women than men, according to Lani Votaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Barbara. Votaw said about 25 percent of her clients come in with anxiety issues.

“Unfortunately, in Western medicine, we look at symptoms rather than the underground problems,” she said.

A patient might come in with stomach aches or some other physical ailment that signals an underlying anxiety problem. “That’s often the first way we realize there’s a problem,” she said.

Clinical depression is measured after it lasts two weeks or longer, according to Votaw, and depression can be the eventual result of anxiety, if left unchecked.

“You can only be anxious so long,” she explained.

Votaw recommended that people experiencing symptoms for longer than two weeks should see a therapist or a physician.

A good therapist will also refer patients to a doctor if it is discovered there are underlying medical issues they aren’t trained to treat, she said.

“Our chemistry changes for lots of different reasons,” Votaw said. “It could be thyroid, it could be diet, it could be emotional. But it doesn’t mean you’re crazy.”

But anxiety is highly treatable, she added, and that everyone she’s seen in her practice with this issue has come away with some relief.

Votaw said she tries to focus on behavioral intervention to help offset anxiety, and that sleeping and eating regularly and getting enough exercise are lifestyle changes that can have big impacts.

“Our body is really the foundation of our emotions,” she said.

Click here for Braithwaite’s first article Click here for her second article. Click here for the third article.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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