what a panic attack really feels like

Many of us will experience a panic attack at some point in our lives. If you don’t know what it is, it’s probably going to be a scary experience. Olivia Rogers shares how it was for her.

South Australian-born Olivia Rogers, 29, is the down-to-earth Aussie girl with a professional attitude and infectious smile. A self-dubbed “insecure kid” who went on to become the 2017 Miss Universe Australia and keen ambassador for positive body image and mental health awareness, it’s been a decade long journey of mental health management for the Priceline ambassador.

Diagnosed with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder at age 19 – that also happened to be the same year Olivia experienced her first panic attack. She was studying for an exam at her grandpas’ house where she lived.

“I was so overwhelmed by fear of failure. I sat down to study and I couldn’t get my mind to calm down. I was in a heightened state that kept going until I couldn’t breathe,” Olivia tells bodyandsoul.com.au.

The now qualified speech pathologist couldn’t pinpoint exactly how the attack started – what prompted the flushed face, hyperventilating, the intense drowning wave of fear and terror and the sobbing.

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“I felt like I was going to die”

“You can’t catch your breath or see a way out,” she says.

During the panic attack, Olivia managed to phone her mum and for the first five minutes, couldn’t say a thing.

“I was hysterical. It feels like a physical problem, not a mental thing. It’s debilitating. I didn’t know how I’d bring myself out of that state,” she says.

Olivia explained to her mum on the phone that day, how she’d been feeling.

“I’d been feeling the pressure from studying and also from modeling where I’d been told I had to lose weight. I’d been trying to deal with everything on my own. I’d been convincing myself it was a phase and I’d get better,” she says, adding, “Mum was amazing. She was so understanding and proactive and helpful. We went to the GP together and I filled out mental health questionnaires.”

That’s when Olivia was diagnosed and prescribed anti-depressants as well as regular GP and therapist appointments to get on top of her depression, anxiety and eating disorder.

It was a time she describes as “confronting” and “isolating” and is the reason why she’s so open and honest about her experience.

The mental health stigma

“To see my name and the diagnosis in black and white was confronting. A decade ago there was still a stigma around mental health and no women in the media were talking about it. I’m vocal now to fill that void. I can be that person so someone else feels seen when in that dark place and not alone,” Olivia says.

Since then, the model has had a few panic attacks, but nothing that stands out like the first. Through therapy she’s been able to use breathing exercises and visualisation to help.

“My therapist taught me a technique where you go through the senses, thinking about something you can smell, see, taste, feel and can hear. Whatever it is you’re anxious about, it takes you out of it and grounds you in the present,” she says, adding that her Apple watch’s breathe feature is another regular way to calm and track her heart rate.

While panic attacks can feel different for everyone, depending on personal experience, they are uncomfortable, distressing, involuntary and often occur without warning.

Progress not perfection

Olivia sees her therapist once a month as a preventative health measure and believes when you’re feeling good is when the real progress can be made. Her advice for someone starting the process is to be open and honest. “In hindsight, I wish I was more. To make the most of your sessions you really need to tell them everything to get better,” she says.

Mental health is a growing problem for Australians, especially with younger generations, according to Australia’s Health Report: from healthcare to self-care released by Priceline this year. It found that Millennials and Gen Z were reporting higher stress levels than their parents, with 6.7% or one in 15 Millennials recording high levels of stress. It’s something Olivia can relate to.

“I’ve been a bit of a stressor for most of my life. But social media and the constant comparison is magnifying that – and starting at such a young age. As much as social media can be a positive tool – there’s comparison of lifestyle, career, holidays, makeup, clothes, weekends, you name it – everything can be compared and not be good enough,” she says.

Olivia’s most stressed when she’s overcommitted and experiences the most joy at the dog park – or painting. To help manage stress, she recommends being really careful about what you’re consuming online, while regular exercise and permission to rest are tools for mental health, as is sleep.

“My stress levels are so much higher when I haven’t had enough sleep. Priceline have this at-home sleep test connected to an app, which monitors your oxygen levels, how long it takes you to fall asleep, heart rate throughout the night, and advises how you can have a better sleep. I’ve found it hugely helpful,” she says.

If you or someone you know needs help, call Lifeline on 131 114, Beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. In an emergency, call 000.

For a treatment plan, your first port of call is with your GP.For more information on mental health and treatment options, visit Lysn, Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute, Lifeline, RUOK or Headspace.