A Berkshire mum-of-three says taking part in a research study has helped her manage lifelong panic attacks.
Tracy McWalter has suffered panic attacks since childhood, with them worsening as she got older. “It could happen anywhere. I felt like I couldn’t escape from it. It could be mundane, like meetings at work, getting on a train, or even going to the hairdressers.
“If I felt like I was in a situation I couldn’t get out of very easily, I would spiral, and it would escalate to the point where it would feel like I was about to die, which sounds very irrational, but it’s very real.
“It is like your worst fears combined. You have very physical symptoms, heart racing, nausea, palpitations, and feelings of doom. You can’t escape from it”.
Tracy volunteered for a study by the University of Oxford, supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and MQ Mental Health Research, which aimed to find alternate treatments for anxiety.
As part of the ‘cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and losartan’ study, participants received one session of CBT, which involved breaking down overwhelming thoughts into manageable parts and finding practical ways to deal with them.
To improve this learning, half of the participants received one dose of losartan, a drug used to treat high blood pressure, whereas the other half to a placebo. Research has shown that losartan may enhance emotional information processing, possibly by stimulating a brain mechanism involved in making new connections and retaining information.
Tracy, who took her husband James, who is one of her safety mechanisms, said, “We figured out what my thinking patterns were and the behaviours that were maintained in the panic attacks for me. We went through the thought processes and behaviours to find out what happened when I had a panic attack and what made them more likely to happen.
“Since the study, I’ve kept doing things that I would never have done before or that I would have avoided doing, and it’s getting a lot better.
“I haven’t had a panic attack since. It has done something to my brain. It’s almost like something’s clicked. It’s a significant change in life quality. Now, I can go to places further away on my own on trains or by car that I wouldn’t have done before, such as day trips out with my children.
Trial Chief Investigator, Dr Andrea Reinecke, said: “CBT is the most effective treatment for anxiety, but courses are long and expensive. Only about half show lasting benefits. There is an enormous need to develop more effective treatment approaches.
“While patients don’t tend to notice a difference in their anxiety until a few days later, I can often tell when I see them the next day how well it worked for them. Often people look lighter or have that holiday glow; I could see this with Tracy as well.
“We know the brain of someone who experiences panic attacks functions differently. The amygdala, which detects threats, is much more sensitive. Within 24 hours after our one-session treatment, this has completely normalised in patients who will feel an improvement over the following few weeks.”
The study has recruited more than 30 people across Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Milton Keynes and Oxfordshire and aims to enrol more.
Adults who experience panic attacks, including very strong physical symptoms like heart racing, breathlessness, dizziness or nausea and strong fears of having a heart attack, fainting, suffocating or going mad may be eligible to participate.
For more information and to sign up contact Dr Andrea Reinecke on 01865 618320 or [email protected]