A panic attack is an intense type of fear response, typically involving a combination of physical and psychological symptoms. They can be a direct response to a particular trigger or they can appear completely out of the blue which indicates the presence of a Panic Disorder.
Typical Symptoms can include:
- a pounding or racing heartbeat
- feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
- feeling very hot or very cold
- sweating, trembling or shaking
- nausea (feeling sick)
- pain in your chest or abdomen
- struggling to breathe or feeling like you’re choking
- feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
- losing control
- going to faint
- having a heart attack
- going to die.
They are often over within 5-20 minutes but can come on very quickly with the symptoms peaking around half way through.
A panic attack can be an intensely frightening experience, especially when someone has one for the first time. It is an exaggerated deployment of the ‘fight or flight’ response which is triggered when the brain recognises an extreme threat.
They can be debilitating and immobilising, but they are also very treatable in a number of ways, short and longer term.
In the short term, learning some coping techniques to reduce the impact and time of panic attacks can be useful. These can include developing breathing techniques which can invoke a sence of calmness and take the edge of the panic. These are naturally not easy to master initially and also in the heat of the moment of a full blown panic attack logic and rationality often go out of the window. By it’s very nature anxiety is not a rational experience. Over time however breathing techniques can become ingrained and second nature during a panic attack.
Gaining an understanding of what is happening in your body is really important as the natural reaction to experiencing something that invokes fear is to behave in a fearful manner which exacerbates the initial feelings of anxiety and panic. Once you learn that the feelings of panic are not harmful, you’re not going to have a heart attack, die or go crazy then you can let go of some of the fear that keeps the panic going.
Relaxing into a panic attack is one of the best methods of reducing their length and impact – resisting them prolongs the experience and teaches your brain that they are something to be feared which will only keepy this cycle going.
Nobody will ever say a panic attack is a pleasant experience or something that is easy to experience but understanding that it is the body overreacting to some kind of stimulus, internal or external can help to take edge off.
In a similar way to anxiety, there are a number of options available to people whose lives are disrupted by panic attacks:
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is a common technique used to reduce the impact of panic attacks; it is based around the notions of changing your thoughts and behaviours. Exposure Therapy is another technique quitre widely used. This is based on training the brain through repeated exposure to the trigger, that there is in fact no fanger and no need for the exaggerated fear responsie. It involveds becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, as strange as it may sound.
Therapy is available on the NHS though usually with a wait, or privately. If going private please remember to check therapists credentials such as membershuip of governing bodies including BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) for example.
The private option can also be expensive but one way to look at it is that if our cars need repairing we pay what it takes- why not treat ourselves with the same kindness?
Medication is commonly prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. For more information about medication please contact your GP. This article provides a summary of potential options.
The NHS has an in depth section of its website dedicated to panic attacks, including sections on:
- What to do during a panic attack
- How to prevent further attacks
- Support groups
The symptoms of panic can have devastating effects on people but developing an understanding of these can reduce the level of fear.
However, relief is available in many forms and panic attacks are treatable.
Understanding what is happening to your body and reducing the fear of panic is one of the most effective techniques, as is simply letting the panic flow and subside on its own.
Please note that the content in this article does not constitute medical advice and anyone experiencing any of these symptoms should contact their GP. In urgent cases or times of crisis this web page contains links to a number of resources.
The charity Mind also has an Infoline where you can access information about mental health problems, where to get help near you and treatment options. The number for this service is 0300 123 3393.