The following blog post is an article I originally wrote on behalf of ReachOut for the 30 September 2012 edition of the Sunday Business Times
Panic attacks are a sudden and intense feeling of fear, or extreme anxiety. While experiencing one you may feel like you’re having a heart attack, or cannot breathe. They can be frightening, especially when they seem to come out of nowhere.
Your body acts as if it’s in grave danger, when in fact it is not. While panic attacks are scary, they are not uncommon. Approximately one in five people will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime.
What are the effects of a panic attack?
Panic attacks can happen anywhere and without warning. They’re characterised as a quick and abrupt feeling of intense panic and fear, associated with the thought of being out of control. Most panic attacks last for a period between 20 to 30 minutes, and reach their peak of intensity at ten minutes. What a panic attack is varies from person to person, but most often you can experience:
- increased heart rate
- shallow breathing and/or hyperventilation
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy or light-headed
- a feeling of the situation or yourself not being real
- fear of losing control, or going crazy
- fear of dying
- tingling sensations in body
- chills or hot flashes
It’s not unusual to experience one or two panic attacks in your lifetime without ever experiencing such significant feelings of anxiety again. However, when they begin happening more frequently, it’s possible for panic attacks to turn into panic disorder. Panic disorder occurs when panic attacks are a recurring event, coupled with changes in behaviour and/or continuing anxiety and fear of having another one.
Causes of panic attacks
The exact cause of panic attacks is still unknown. However, panic attacks have been connected to experiencing ongoing stress, a sudden stressful event, experiencing a major life transition, irrational/negative thinking patterns and phobias.
Feelings similar to panic attacks can also be caused by medication withdrawal, hypoglycaemia, hyperthyroidism, mitral valve prolapse, asthma and inner ear problems. Check with your doctor to try to work out the cause of your symptoms.
Managing panic attacks
Self talk: It is important to try to remind yourself during a panic attack that although it is scary, panic attacks cannot cause you physical harm. Also, try to tell yourself that the feelings you’re experiencing will pass. Try distracting yourself by focusing on something else pleasant, or listening to relaxing music.
Diet: Stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes, alcohol and energy drinks can increase your anxiety levels and act as triggers for a panic attack. In addition, be mindful when taking medications that tend to include stimulants, such as migraine medication, diet pills and non-drowsy cold medicine.
Relaxation: When activities such as breathing techniques or meditation are practised on a daily basis, it increases your ability to calm yourself. Implementing relaxation techniques when experiencing panic puts the brakes on your body’s stress response. Try breathing in as deeply as you can from your stomach over four seconds, then slowly breathe out over eight seconds. This not only gives you control over your breathing, but slows down your heart rate, preventing further panic.
Seek help: If you find you’re still experiencing panic attacks, it can be helpful to speak with your GP or a therapist. They may be able to suggest things to try, or help treat you if a panic disorder has developed.
Panic attacks can be frightening, but if dealt with properly they can be overcome. The important thing is to look after yourself, and seek help to avoid future attacks.
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.