Breathe easy

Presentations play a crucial role in Nick Janvier’s job. The 36-year-old NHS statistical analyst has long delivered talks to rooms full of colleagues. But in February last year that suddenly changed. As Janvier started a presentation he was overcome by anxiety so severe that his heart started to pound and his voice shook. He stumbled on for about a minute, but eventually had to ask a colleague to take over.

“I was completely gripped by panic,” he recalls. “I was sweating, and I lost any hold on my thoughts. I left the meeting feeling really bad about myself.”

According to the NHS, panic attacks affect one in ten of us, and 2 per cent of Britons will suffer frequent bouts known as panic disorder. In addition to the acute feeling of fear, attacks are characterised by rapid heartbeat, fast breathing and nausea, and while most last only a few minutes, they can continue for an hour or more. GPs faced with panic disorder will typically advise on a course of the talking treatment cognitive behavioural therapy, or may prescribe one of the family of depression and anxiety drugs known as selection serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

But Janvier found help in a drug-free noninvasive treatment called biofeedback. Here, patients are connected to instruments that measure heartbeat, muscle tension and breathing rate, and then display this information in an immediately accessible form, usually via graphs on a computer screen. Practitioners say that the experience can cause patients to learn a new level of control over their bodies, with therapeutic benefits for conditions from epilepsy to migraines and irritable bowel syndrome.

Janvier, who is single, says he suspects that stress in a personal relationship may have been part of the reason that he suddenly fell prey to the attacks. “A panic attack occurred again at the next big meeting, and the next.”

He heard about biofeedback through friends, and arrived for his first session with Glyn Blackett, of the York Biofeedback Centre, in June last year. The treatment dates back to work by psychologists and neuroscientists in the 1940s. “Biofeedback is based on a simple idea: learning control of the body,” says Blackett, a trained psychotherapist. “In anxiety cases by far the most useful physical parameter to concentrate on is the breath, and I focus solely on that. If patients can start to control the breath, they can halt the downward spiral into a panic attack.

Source - Times

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