Updated: Aug 24, 2022
Whether you’ve experienced numerous panic attacks, or only a handful, the
dread of experiencing another is all the same. It may hit you like a wave; you
might feel overwhelmed and afraid, or you may see it emerging over the
horizon. Nonetheless, the loss of control makes you feel helpless.
Panic is a form of anxiety, and is a normal response to danger. This is also
known as the fight or flight response. During this response, our bodies release
hormones to either fight the threat, or run to safety. This response dates back
to when our ancient ancestors would be faced with regular threats, therefore,
having this response allowed them to protect themselves. However, it seems
that even though society has dramatically changed, and these threats are
more infrequent, our minds are yet to catch up with our contemporary
surroundings meaning this response has become misplaced.
What are panic attacks?
Experiencing a panic attack can be very distressing and frightening, and it
may even feel like you cannot recover from the experience. A panic attack is a
rush of intense physical and psychological symptoms; sometimes they appear
from nowhere, or some individuals may be aware of their triggers. The
symptoms of panic disorder overlap with other anxiety difficulties, however,
there are clear symptoms that separate them.
The symptoms of panic may include:
A racing heart
Shortness of breath
A need to go to the toilet
A choking sensation
The key thoughts and feelings that separate panic from other anxiety
disorders are “am I going to pass out?” or “am I having a heart attack?”
These thoughts may lead individuals to experience a feeling of dread or a fear
of dying. The physical sensations that panic creates may feel like it isn’t a
psychological difficulty, and in fact it is a purely physical problem. Often
people will seek medical attention, as they are concerned that they are having
a heart attack.
Like many other mental health difficulties, panic can be a result of a number of
factors. The key causes may include, a traumatic event (sexual assault,
serious accident, a bereavement), family history of panic disorder, major life
events (divorce or having a baby), stress, smoking and caffeine intake.
Another cause of panic can be the panic itself; experiencing a panic attack in
a public place (supermarket or busy city centre) may mean that you fear
returning back to that particular place. Individuals will associate that place with
panic, and then may subsequently avoid returning back, which may impact
their life further.
Dealing with panic
Panic can feel overwhelming, and you might not know where to start when it
comes to controlling the symptoms. Fortunately, there are plenty of treatments
and techniques to help you work through panic.
Psycho-education is great for gathering information on what panic is and how
it can be managed. It is the backbone to many therapies, such as Cognitive
Behavioural Therapy and counselling, and focuses on providing information
about mental health disorders to aid recovery. It is believed that the more you
understand about the mental health difficulty you’re suffering with, the more
you will be able to regain control.
Focusing on breathing can be useful when experiencing a panic attack. This
might seem simple; but if you’ve ever felt stuck in a panic attack before, you
will know that you will notice your breathing feels shallow and accelerated.
Focusing on your breath allows you to ground yourself, taking your attention
away from the symptoms your experiencing. Diaphragmatic breathing (deep
breathing) calms your nervous system and makes you feel more relaxed.
Taking shallow breaths increases your anxiety and is associated with
hyperventilation, which is a common symptom of panic attacks.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a relaxation exercise that anyone can
use to ease distressing symptoms of panic. It is particularly helpful when
experiencing high levels of stress, and aims to relieve tension, muscle pain
and stiffness which individuals experience when feeling anxious. PMR
reverses these effects on the body by lowering heart rate and puts the focus
onto your body. This exercise is useful for making individuals more aware of
their bodies, and how physical tension contributes to their emotional state.
The idea is to slowly work around your body, tensing and relaxing parts of it,
allowing you to notice the difference between a tense and relaxed state. If
you’re able to relax your body, you might be able to let go of those anxious
thoughts and feelings.
It is important to remember that the symptoms of panic will reduce; we can
often believe that our anxiety will keep on rising and we will not be able to
recover - this is not the case. Remind yourself that it is your thoughts and
feelings causing the attack, and that it will pass. If you have experienced
panic before – remember that you have survived these previous attacks. If
possible, you should resist leaving places or situations due to the panic
attack, as this will make it more difficult for you to return in the future. Seeking
professional help and having a good support network for any anxiety disorder can really help you along your journey.