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What helping my mum cope with panic attacks taught me about life, mental health, and ageing

Published on:21 December 2020, 19:13pm IST
With ageing comes a slew of changes, that I was honestly prepared for in my mother. But the lockdown-induced panic attacks? Well, I never saw them coming.
Meghna Kriplani
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Panic attacks can be unpredictable, unprovoked, and quite frightening.

No matter how old you might be, it’s never easy seeing a parent fall in the crutches of old age. And if you’re an only child, like me, then this part of your life is going to be even more arduous.

Before we all found ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, I was certain that my 70-something independent and free-spirited mother was in the pink of health—and that nothing would change in the foreseeable future. But then, the lockdown happened in March. And my mother and I found ourselves in two different cities—with me grappling with an increased workload and she struggling with loneliness.

Fast forward four months later: my mother experienced her first panic attack, alone at home with no one to help, and no clue how to deal. One month later, she got another one. And then another and another… until she lost count.

It took us almost six months to get her properly diagnosed

The worst part about getting a panic attack is that there is no fixed set of symptoms that everyone experiences. In my mother’s case, they always started as flushed skin which then progressed to heart palpitations, chills, gastric distress, shallow breathing, and difficulty in speaking.

Because she is a hypertension patient, our first guess was always that her blood pressure was high. It didn’t help that all readings taken while she was having an attack were dangerously high. And since her heartbeat was also terribly rapid, for the first few months we kept assuming that it was her medications that weren’t doing their job.

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Knowing the difference between anxiety and panic attacks can make all the difference. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Since July, when she first experienced a panic attack, we consulted with four medical practitioners—to have only stumbled on the right therapeutic course in December.

From getting ECGs and ECHOs done to rushing her to the emergency room for a suspected heart attack—we’ve done it all. And trust me when I say this: not knowing what’s happening makes the situation all the more worse.

Panic attacks are unpredictable and often unprovoked

The first time my mother got a panic attack, she was running a mild fever—courtesy a UTI. She started experiencing anxiety when a doctor suggested getting tested for covid-19. The second time it happened, however, she was drinking her morning tea and getting ready to start her day after a good night’s sleep.

With each passing incident understanding the trigger became more and more difficult. Until the fear of getting a panic attack became another yet another trigger to look out for.

Panic attacks can have dangerous physical ramifications, especially in seniors

I am not just talking about the physical symptoms of panic attacks here. The fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rate can have a slew of negative effects on the body. Studies also suggest that long-term anxiety, like panic attacks, can cause heart disease.

And if the person suffering at the hands of panic disorder already has heart problems like hypertension then you can very well understand what the ramifications can be if it is left untreated.

Also, watch:

Despite the furore in the last few months, mental health in India is still largely ignored

Let me come out and say it, once and for all: very few people take anxiety seriously—no matter their reaction to your social media post on covid anxiety.

When I told concerned friends and family about my mother’s diagnosis, I was often told things like: “Meditation karne ko bolo, sab theek ho jayega”; “yeh social media ki galti hai!”; and “yeh sab kuch nahi hota!”

Can meditation help with panic and anxiety disorders? Absolutely! Is social media to blame for increased anxiety—in not just my mother but also a large part of the global population? You betcha! But here’s the thing: major life stress, genetics, and trauma are all to blame for it too. It doesn’t help that many experts believe that can be terribly hard to prevent panic attacks in the first place.

Throw in to this mix a quickly spreading pandemic, fear of survival, and acute isolation into the mix—and not just my septuagenarian mother but any young ‘un could get panic attacks too.

But getting your ageing parent on board with the harsh reality of an anxiety disorder is the toughest part of it all

For my mother, much like most people in the world I suppose, not worrying about anything means no room for anxiety. Which is why perhaps she grapples with the concept of being on anti-anxiety medications. The lethargy that this therapy brings is yet another challenge, more so when you are already fighting against your not-so agile body.

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You should know how you can help your parents deal with the pandemic and anxiety. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

For me, however, the most difficult part of this journey has been getting my mother to see a counsellor. As she returns to her normal routine, clonazepam in place, the virtue of seeking help—one that only requires talking it out—seems to be lost on her. “Why spend more money?” and “Arey, now I am completely fine” are her standard responses.

And I don’t blame her for it either. With counselling being one of the most expensive fields in healthcare in India, it’s hard to convince someone like my mother to take it up. The lack of conversations around the deteriorating mental health of senior citizens, especially those who are living on their own, doesn’t help either.

If years of research for the sake of my career as a health journalist hasn’t helped me enough when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health, my mother’s ongoing tryst with panic disorder surely has. So in the end all I can say is that for your sake, if nothing else, look after your parents’ mental health. I know I am.

Meghna Kriplani Meghna Kriplani

Waging a war against diets one cookie at a time, Meghna is a content creator and editor focusing on women's issues, wellness, and lifestyle.