Steph, now 23, started having panic attacks when she was 11 years old. “It was around the time I started secondary school, and no one knew what they were”, she says. Although she went to her GP at the time, they had no inkling that the attacks were to do with an underlying mental health problem. “If I’d been diagnosed at 10 or 11 properly, my life would have been so different. My teenage years were absolute hell. It was all-consuming.”
Panic attacks are characterised by a sudden feeling of anxiety – one so strong that you become overwhelmed. They fill you with fear and dread. They can make you sick, they can make you tremble, and they can make you sweat. Lasting from around five to 20 minutes – sometimes longer – they can be utterly terrifying.
While having a panic attack is horrible, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have an underlying mental health problem. Panic disorder, however, which is when the sufferer has recurring and regular panic attacks, is the condition that is formally classified by doctors as an anxiety disorder. And this is a disorder which you’re 2.5 times
more likely to be diagnosed with if you’re a woman than a man.
Laura Whitehurst from Anxiety UK
, the nationwide charity that helps people with anxiety, explains. “Women in general are more predisposed to anxiety, which is why they’re more likely to develop panic disorder. A recent study,
for instance, showed that 22% of women feel anxious all or a lot of the time, compared to only 15% of men. Other explanations are to do with the differences in brain chemistry between men and women."
have shown that women tend to have lower levels of serotonin, the brain neurotransmitter that is critical to treating anxiety, than men. Others argue
that female hormones linked to the menstrual cycle may be to blame. A further explanation for why women report having panic attacks more than men may be social: men are less likely
to come forward and seek treatment for recurring panic attacks, instead dealing with their anxiety on their own.
Dr Rose Aghdami, a psychologist
specialising in panic disorder, agrees. “In my clinical experience, men tend to use alcohol to deal with their feelings of panic. It's not that they don’t have panic attacks as often, but they deal with them differently, by blotting it out and escaping." It's important to remember though, that women also use alcohol to deal with anxiety
, along with other substances.