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Brazilian beauty Gisele Bündchen started her modeling career at 14. By the age of 20 she was a runaway fashion runway star. At 23, plagued by severe panic attacks, her seemingly charmed life suddenly felt cursed. In Lessons: My Path to A Meaningful Life, her new memoir out today, Bündchen reveals the anxiety and panic that made her feel so helpless and out-of-control that she “questioned whether I wanted to live.”

Bündchen, now 38, writes that in her early 20s, she was “on a hamster wheel and didn’t even know it.” She was working 350 days a year and fueling her globe-trotting modeling career with caffeine, cigarettes and wine. Some nights she consumed “an entire bottle of wine,” she writes. “I was living 100 miles per hour, smoking, drinking, eating badly, and not sleeping much.” She didn’t recognize the cost of her sleep-deprived, stress-filled, unhealthy lifestyle until 2003 when she experienced her first panic attack. She was 23 and flying in a small six-seater airplane. “The weather that day was touch and go, and when the plane rose in the air it began wobbling and shaking like a little leaf,” I’m going to die, I told myself.”  She felt faint, trapped, out of control and overwhelmed by a “feeling that nothing in the world was steady or stable,” she writes.

The plane landed safely but that experience in the air significantly affected her life on the ground. “I could feel that something had changed in me.”

Driven by Fear

What Bündchen describes is a classic manifestation of a panic attack says Sudeepta Varma, MD, a board certified psychiatrist, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center, and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.  While Dr. Varma has never treated Bündchen, she regularly treats patients with anxiety and panic disorders.  “I have many patients who have panic attacks that begin with some form of transportation,” says Dr. Varma. As in Bündchen’s case, “the precipitating event may be a turbulent flight but [over time], it takes less and less of a stimulus threshold to induce panic,” adds Dr. Varma.

Back home in New York City, the panic that first struck Bündchen on that flight surfaced in other ways. Taking an elevator made her feel claustrophobic, sucked the breath out of her. Tunnels and subways elicited the same need for air. Traveling for work became a constant struggle to control her ever expanding anxieties. Her fears seemed to multiply by the day. Soon, even modeling studios, cars and hotel rooms– especially those with windows that didn’t open–sparked the panic.

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Dr. Varma explains that there is often a “sentinel” event. It might be something scary (a bumpy flight) or something traumatic or life threatening. It can also be something completely unthreatening. You could be sitting on a couch when a panic attack strikes says Dr. Varma.  “You feel scared, vulnerable and alone and start to avoid places [or situations] that induce that feeling.” Maybe you stop taking flights, avoid the subway or social situations. “What you are now having is anticipatory anxiety or anxiety about the anxiety or the fear of losing control,” says Dr. Varma. “You start to generalize it to a lot of situations that once were not scary.”

To try to manage her panic, Bündchen consulted two specialists in New York. Six months passed and the panic attacks persisted.  “The same symptoms appeared every time,” she writes. “My hands would start sweating, followed by the familiar wet prickling sensation on my forehead. The back of my neck would get damp, then my hair. My breath would start catching. I would feel light headed.  Sometimes I would almost faint,” she writes.

One day during an at-home massage meant to relax her, she panicked, fled the massage table and ended up on the deck of her 9th floor apartment.  “It felt like everything in my life was going to kill me,” she writes. Even her apartment, her safe space, had “become a cage, and I was the animal trapped inside, panting for air.” At that moment, for a moment, she thought it would be easier “If I just jump.”

The next morning, she went to see her doctor. After making sure she wasn’t suicidal, he prescribed Xanax giving her one sample pill to take until she filled the prescription. Staring at that tablet she decided she didn’t want to be dependent on pills, she writes. She threw the pill in the trash.

 From Panic to Peace

When one of her six daughters was ill, Bündchen’s mother sought out natural remedies teas and the like– to treat their ailments. Her mother’s example, prayer and her own intuition started her on a healing path. She prayed and the answer came to her in the night: yoga.

She read about breathing techniques like pranayama, a practice in which a person breathes through one-nostril at a time. She read about meditation, something she’d never tried before. She found a yoga instructor. Always a disciplined person, Bündchen went all in. She began practicing yoga, meditation and breathing every morning at 5 am, a practice she continues to this day. She stopped smoking. She gave up caffeine and cut out sugar, a process she says was “incredibly difficult” and gave her a terrible headache for two weeks.  But after three weeks, she felt better. And after three months on the regime—the panic attacks went away, she writes.

Most patients with a panic disorder don’t get better on their own says Dr. Varma.  A person has to be very disciplined and committed to the process, she adds.  “So while, I’m impressed that [Gisele Bündchen] was able to turn things around on her own, it’s somewhat atypical from what I see.”

While Dr. Varma believes that natural therapies such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga and mindful meditation are an essential part of the treatment for panic disorder, she also believes in the value of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for panic disorder.  “You learn to re-appraise /reassess the danger and notice when you are employing cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing (thinking of the worst case scenario) or over-generalizing (all planes, situations, tight-spaces are dangerous).”  Along with CBT, anxiety and panic can be treated with SSRIs (serotonin reuptake inhibitors) that are effective for people whose symptoms manifest more than 2 or 3 times a week says Dr. Varma. In addition, “if you have a baseline level of anxiety that is already moderate to severe and are frequently using medications such as Xanax than I would strongly consider CBT therapy with a psychiatrist or CBT therapist,” she says. “You want a trained professional with expertise in treating anxiety and panic disorders.”

Now 38, Bündchen is the mother of Benjamin, 8 and Vivian, 5, her children with her husband, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. She still models. She is a businesswoman, a philanthropist, humanitarian and animal lover. Bündchen explained why she decided to write the memoir in an Instagram post on July 19: “Writing this book was a transformative and intense process for me. Uncovering stories deep inside of me made me feel vulnerable and emotional, but through facing my shadows and insecurities I learned how to accept and love myself in a deeper way. My intention in writing this book is to share how I overcame certain challenges in my life in hopes that it could help others who may be going thru similar experiences.

All profits from the sales of her memoir will be donated to Project Água Limpa, an organization that works to protect water sources for future generations.

Last Updated: Oct 2, 2018