Dear Atsi Mel: I’m having Panic Attacks, and I don’t know what to do.


Hi, my name is Tessie, and I am an accountant in a private law firm. I’m happy to find your advice column, since I have no one I can really share my problem with. I live in Manila, but I work in Makati. For almost two years, I have not stepped inside the office. My office gave a return-to-work (RTO) order a week ago.

My problem is something I don’t think my family can understand. My friends don’t get it either. It started way back a few weeks ago, even before the RTO. My hands are shaking and I can’t breathe. It happened while I was working in front of my computer, at home. Like so many other office workers, I started working from home after the pandemic began. I’ve never felt like this before. It’s scary, there is a feeling like I’m going to die. There’s the feeling that everything around me will collapse. But after ten minutes, it is gone. I thought at first it is high blood or heart attack, because my father has high blood. They say it can be passed on in genetics. 

I’m really scared to go to the hospital, because of COVID. So, instead, what I did was ask a family friend who is a doctor of Family Medicine. I felt really strange when the doctor told me I have panic attacks. I asked the doctor not to tell anyone in my family. He says it is not likely to be about blood pressure, since I’m young and healthy, and I am just slightly overweight. For the record, I’m 28 years old, and I’m not that fat.

What am I having panic attacks for? I Googled it, and my research says it is some anxiety problem, like a disorder. I don’t understand. I am not crazy like the others! I don’t have anxiety disorder, so what’s the reason for the panic attacks? 

Please help. I’d like to solve this problem by myself. I don’t want my family to know. I’m living with my elder parents and my brother. I’m OK with them, but I want to keep this to myself. If there’s anyone I can talk to about it, it can be my church group friends. I have a best friend, but we have gotten out of touch. But I don’t know what to say, or what to share about this, even to my best friend. 

It really sounds so abnormal to me, especially since I have such a normal life. I’ve never gotten into trouble at school or work. I just don’t want to have another attack again, especially now they are asking me to return to work. It will be so embarrassing, especially to Mr. D, my boss. 

Please tell me how to make them stop. I also want to know how to prevent the panic attacks from happening. Please also tell me what to do if I have them in a public place. Right now, thinking about the panic attacks is making me panic! 

Thank you in advance. Maybe somebody else reading this has the same problem. If they read your advice, maybe it will help them too. 


Dear Tessie,

Before I go on giving you advice in this advice column, let me introduce myself a bit more. I used to be a psychotherapist before I made the decision to stop. I stopped because I needed to take care of my own mental health, and I’m just being honest here—I won’t give you advice I won’t take myself.

Instead of thinking “therapist” or “doctor”, I come to you as a friend. A Chinoy friend. And because I’m female and already 42 years old, you can call me, “Atsi.” 

As I mentioned before, I have first-hand experience of mental health problems. I’ll be using my real-life experiences here, as examples to illustrate my point. Its’s terrifying to have something “wrong” with you, in terms of mental health. It’s terrifying when you can’t explain it, and you don’t know who to ask, or even what to ask. Although I did not have panic attacks, I know what anxiety looks like, feels like, talks like, acts like. I’ve seen in from both sides: as a former therapist and as a person who had experienced high level anxiety.

What I can say is, I’m pretty sure your panic attacks come from a very deep part of you. This place is called the unconscious. It is a place where dark things hide because we inwardly believe our truth is not a socially acceptable truth. Also, it is a truth that we cannot say out loud to ourselves without hating ourselves, a bit.

I’ll give you an example—I have an irrational fear of fat. I am an experience of anorexia. My hard truth is I fear taking space. I do not eat (that much) because I believe deep down that I do not deserve to exist. This is a hard truth, a dark thought. It has a long origin story, but let’s leave it at that. Now, let’s get back to the issue.

These unconscious notions surface when our psyche is in crisis, as it is, in your case. In short, the deepest part of you is begging to be heard. It is screaming out for help, and your panic attacks are the most logical or acceptable or socially less risky way it can express itself. 

In psychology, we call panic attacks a symptom. The symptom you show speaks of some troubling dynamic happening in your life right now. This dynamic (something unfolding or happening, we can call “ganap” if you like), is causing you distress. But the part of you who wants to socially belong does not want to show to the world this distress. So, your creative self found the closest socially acceptable way your unpleasant truth can be heard: the symptom. In your case, this is the panic attack. In my case, I developed an eating disorder. 

Truth is, the more severe the symptom, the darker the hidden, unspoken, uncomfortable truth is. The good news, is Tessie, based on what I read, you will probably be OK once you do some interventions. Panic attacks can be stopped if you find out what is causing them, and if what is causing them is fixed. In your case, I think the onset of the Return-To-Work order after almost two years of working at home triggered the panic attacks. I have come up with some possible explanations of why you are getting panic attacks. If the following strike close to your unspoken truth, then I suggest you probe deeper. 

You might be having panic attacks because:

  • You have some fears about performing the job—maybe somethings have changed, and you are unsure what.
  • You have fears about socializing again. Maybe the time off from the physical office shielded you from some people you wished to avoid. And now, there is no escaping them.
  • You have anxiety about getting sick, or carrying COVID back home to someone who is vulnerable.
  • Lastly, your time off may let you realize you don’t want this job at all, and you need a change of direction in life.

As I said, in your case, I can only give intelligent guesses. Judging from your background and descriptions, your dark truth may be having a general sense of dissatisfaction in life. 

I want you to take some time to reflect and ask some hard questions, Tessa. What are you unhappy about in your life? Start with the smallest things that irritate you. Then the bigger, more irritating, big issues. Whenever these questions are asked, they usually revolve around family life—the pain in family relationships, the unspoken words, the hidden hurts, the regrets, the secrets. 

You may or may not find your answers very quickly. It took a while for the panic attacks to manifest in your life. The worse these symptoms are, the less unacceptable the hidden truth is to your conscious self. Again, let’s go back to my example. For me anorexia was a major mental breakdown. It took me years to climb out of that hole. Because it took me years to face acknowledge my unspoken, dark truths.

Understand that your panic attacks are trying to communicate with the awake, socially engaged part of your personality—the you who is living a socially acceptable life. Do notice that I keep on saying “socially acceptable”. Why? Because we as human beings are social creatures, and as Chinoys especially, we value conformity. Respect to elders, that’s a big thing. Not being “abnormal”, that’s a big thing, not to be embarrassed in front of others even at the cost of our own mental health, that’s sadly common with us Chinoys. We Chinoys, generally speaking, are not encouraged to express our innermost savage self, and that is why the wild part rebels. In your case, it is rebelling through panic attacks. In my case, my wild self rebelled through a seemingly unexplainable urge not to eat, i.e. anorexia. 

Once you get your answers, once you are acquainted to the hard, unacceptable truths, your panic attacks will stop. The closer you are to accepting those hard truths as your truths, the closer you will get to getting the panic attacks to stop. 

There is really no specific time frame, since I do not have a grasp of how deep your troubles are. If it is a matter of anxieties stemming from Return-To-Office issues, then it won’t be hard to fix. But if it something more of a midlife crisis, that will take more time and courage to solve. At this point, I will urge you to seek professional help if you want it. Wala naming mawawala. (Nothing to lose if you do it.) You might get some peace of mind too. If taking psychotropic medication would help you heal, then, it is up to you and your professional mental health worker to work that out.

Once you get answers to those hard-to-answer questions, your panic attacks will stop. There is really no specific time frame, since I do not have a grasp of how deep your troubles are. If it is a matter of anxieties stemming from Return-To-Office issues, then it won’t be hard to fix. But if it something more of a midlife crisis, that will take more time and courage to solve. 

Lastly, you can’t do mental health alone. You need other people to support and encourage you to heal. Start talking about this with a trusted friend or relative when you are ready. You will be surprised how much people care about you, and are willing to help.

Legal disclaimer 

The advice columnist is expressing his or her own personal opinions. The advice provided is solely for the purpose of providing information. This information is not intended to replace or substitute professional, psychological, mental, medical, or psychiatric advice.

If you require additional assistance, please contact a professional practitioner. The views presented here are not meant to diagnose or treat any mental condition. We simply want this to be a safe space for Chinoys from all walks of life to communicate openly about their mental health concerns.

ABOUT Melany Heger
Melany (Jinjin Melany Chua Heger, R.Psy.) is a Chinoy work-at-home home mom. She trained as a psychologist and had a brief stint as a psychotherapist. Then, she made a career shift to “writer” at mid-life. She made this choice to have a better quality of life, for work-life balance. She lives with her two kids and husband in Manila. 
Follow her on https://www.facebook.com/melanyhwriterpsy

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