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Panic attacks lead to a new enterprise

Lucas Mattiello had his first panic attack when he was in Grade 9. The Burnaby man was 14 at the time, and a member of his school's wrestling team.

Lucas Mattiello had his first panic attack when he was in Grade 9.

The Burnaby man was 14 at the time, and a member of his school's wrestling team.

On the mat, when a teammate had him in a hold, he suddenly felt his chest tighten, his heart hammering and his breath coming in shallow gasps.

He needed to get away imme-iately.

He thought he was going to die.

While one out of five people will experience a panic attack in their lifetime, the problem can become chronic.

Anxiety disorders affect about 12 per cent of the provincial population, according to the B.C. branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

For Mattiello, his first panic attack led to many more, which eventually caused him to drop out of wrestling and avoid situations that might increase his anxiety.

Over the next 15 years he suffered in silence, becoming ever more anxious about being anxious.

"Once it starts, you're always kind of on the lookout for the next panic attack," he said. "It's very frightening. It kind of takes over your body."

The turning point came a couple of years ago when Mattiello was in the middle of a drill during a martial art class when he experienced one of the worst panic attacks of his life.

When he started feeling as though the walls were closing in on him, he ran out of the gym and collapsed on the floor in the hallway.

The head instructor found him and asked what was wrong.

Mattiello tried to brush it off, saying he was OK, but the instructor saw that was obviously not true.

Unable to deny it, Mattiello told him what was happening.

"The only question he asked me was what I needed to feel safe," Mattiello said. "That was a huge moment for me because I had never thought that somebody would be willing to help me. I always looked at it like it was my own problem and that I had to deal with alone."

Once he realized he didn't have to keep his anxiety a secret, he told family and friends, who were all supportive, asking him how they could help.

He sought treatment and was diagnosed with panic disorder.

Knowing there were steps he could take to deal with his anxiety made all the difference, Mattiello said.

For the first time, he felt a sense of control and a reason to hope his life could be better.

"The word 'recovery' was not something I ever thought was possible," he said. "I was working to reduce my daily anxiety and had some tools to fight back when it happened. I didn't think I'd be able to wake up and be in control again. So just having that goal, for me, that really gave me a lot of energy to push through."

Mattiello put all his energy into overcoming his anxiety.

He increased his fitness regimen, took up yoga and meditation, cut caffeine, sugar and refined carbohydrates from his diet, and, perhaps most importantly, learned to counter what had been pervasive negative thoughts.

It wasn't long before he realized he was no longer feeling anxious and was not worried about having another panic attack.

At that point, he decided to turn to helping others struggling with anxiety disorders and founded Level Up Living, a workshop-based business that offers support and instruction in public speaking and stress management.

Mattiello enrolled in the self-employment program at Douglas College last year, and launched his business this summer.

Since he has gone public with his story, sharing his experience on his website and at speaking engagements, Mattiello said he has been overwhelmed by the number of people who want to share with him their own stories of anxiety.

"Once they know I'm OK with sharing my experiences, there's not that level of judgment," he said. "The judgment is what stops a lot of people from sharing what they're going through. They know, with me, that I'm not going to tell them that they're nuts, they're crazy, because I've probably been in darker places than they have."

Though he'll never forget what it's like to experience anxiety, Mattiello said it would be impossible for him to have another panic attack because he now knows how to recognize the mental and physical warning signs.

"I have absolutely no fear of relapse," he said.

To prove his point, Mattiello has stared down not only his own panic triggering situations, but also taken on some challenges the average person would find sweat inducing: public speaking and heights.

Last month, he positively relished speaking to a group of 200 at Freelance Camp in New Westminster, and on Sept. 11 Mattiello repelled down a 20storey building in Vancouver as part of a fundraiser for the Easter Seals.

Feeling free after living half his life bound by debilitating anxiety, Mattiello said he is eager to pass on his findings and offer tools to help others.

This month, he is holding a course in public speaking for those with moderate to severe anxiety.

The workshops will be held on a weekly basis at the Italian Cultural Centre in East Vancouver, and there are still a few spots left.

Taking the first step to overcome anxiety is all about changing the way it is viewed, Mattiello said.

"I used to view it as a huge weakness," he said. "But it actually takes strength to admit you're struggling with something."

For more information about Level Up Living, visit www.lev