Fear in the Belly

Imagine your heart suddenly starts to beat quickly – too quickly. For no apparent reason. You find it impossible to lower it back to its normal rhythm. You’re short of breath. The ends of your fingers are numb. You’re convinced you’re having a heart attack. Now imagine you’re a prisoner of this state for hours on end.

By Marie Bernier

Joanie Pietraculpa
(Photo: Maude Arsenault)

That’s how Joanie Pietracupa describes the panic attack she suffered four years ago. This dynamic woman in her 30s, editor of such standout Québec magazines as VÉRO, ELLE Québec and ELLE Canada, was going through an especially intense period in her professional life.

“I was working on four projects at the same time. I had a lot of responsibilities,” she recalls in her sunlit kitchen, her cat Maggie lounging on a countertop. “I’ve always been a stressed person, but for the first time, it really blew up.”  That autumn night in 2017, having just arrived at her mom’s for an ordinary family dinner, she began to feel ill. Very ill. To the point that she had to be brought back home.

“Something inside me broke,” she says. “It took me three days to recover, like I’d run a marathon. Afterward I couldn’t go back to living normally. I was incapable of reasonable thinking. I lived in fear of another panic attack. I was scared of being scared.”

The Montrealer went to see a psychologist, and the diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The most common mental health problem in this country, 3 million Canadian adults suffer anxiety and mood disorders.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic, this figure is sharply on the rise. One Quebecker in 5, or 1 in 4 Quebec city dwellers, declared themselves, in September 2020, to have been suffering anxiety or depression in the two preceding weeks, says a Université de Sherbrooke study.

Anxiety isn’t necessarily a problem, says Nayla Awada, a psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders. “Anxiety is a normal emotion. It has a very useful function, which is to indicate when something is dangerous. If a car is heading your way, it’s important to feel fear so you can react. When you think about it, it’s crucial for our survival.

“Anxiety is also a sort of motor. For example, it can motivate you to study for an exam. Without stress we’d be more apathetic.”

 But when does it become pathological? Dr. Awada says two factors come into play: “Anxiety has to affect how a person functions. And that situation has to be a source of distress for that person.”

Think of someone afraid to take the bus, a classic case of agoraphobia – fear of open spaces, part of the spectrum of anxiety disorders along with post-traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorders, panic attacks, social anxiety, and specific phobias.

“The toughest thing about anxiety is that it often doesn’t have a precise cause,” says Julianne Côté, who portrayed the panicky Lili for 5 years on the popular Quebec TV show Le chalet, and who herself suffers anxiety. Côté’s last panic attack happened in the most peaceful of circumstances, when she was taking a drive with her partner during a vacation.

Julianne Côté (Photo: Maude Arsenault)

“If I didn’t suffer attacks myself, I’d have thought my interpretation of Lili ridiculous, clownish… Yes, it can be that intense.”

There’s no secret on how to combat these crises: “You have to expose yourself to the thing you fear,” says Dr. Awada. “Confronting your fears is a concept that most people understand. Many people will do it by themselves.” An example: open a conversation about the thing you’re scared of.

And seek help: Psychotherapy, combined with medication, usually bears excellent results, Dr. Awada says.

For Joanie Petracupa, “as cuckoo as it sounds… meditation really helps me,” she says, chuckling. “It’s forced me to re-center myself on the present moment and to not always think about the worst-case scenario.”

Julianne Côté found an odder therapy works for her. “It’s a little placebo that does me good. My doctor told me that certain athletes take yellow mustard before a big game because it helps with muscle cramps. Since my panic attacks are often muscular in nature, I keep little mustard packs in my pockets. It might be only in my head, but it’s helped me a few times!”   

Being honest about your situation is key, Côté says. “It’s part of me and I’m proud of where I can get to with the tools I’ve been able to find.”

First published in Reflet de Société magazine, vol. 29, no. 1, January 2021, pages 8-9

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