What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or discomfort that reaches its peak within minutes. These episodes can be highly distressing and may involve a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. Panic attacks can occur unexpectedly or be triggered by specific situations or thoughts.
Common symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Rapid Heartbeat (Palpitations): A feeling of a pounding or racing heart.
- Sweating: Profuse sweating, even if the environment is not particularly hot.
- Trembling or Shaking: Uncontrollable shaking or trembling.
- Shortness of Breath: Difficulty breathing or a feeling of being smothered.
- Chest Discomfort or Pain: A sensation of pressure or pain in the chest.
- Nausea or Abdominal Distress: Upset stomach, sickness, or other gastrointestinal discomfort.
- Dizziness or Lightheadedness: Feeling unsteady, dizzy, or faint.
- Chills or Heat Sensations: Experiencing sudden chills or feeling hot and flushed.
- Numbness or Tingling: Feeling numbness or tingling, often in the hands or feet.
- Fear of Losing Control or Going Crazy: A sense of impending doom or fear of losing touch with reality.
It’s important to note that not everyone experiencing a panic attack will have all of these symptoms. Additionally, individuals who have panic attacks often describe a strong sense of fear and the belief that something catastrophic is about to happen.
Panic attacks can be associated with panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder characterised by recurrent and unexpected panic attacks. However, panic attacks can also occur in other anxiety disorders or as a result of certain medical conditions.
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of panic attacks, it’s advisable to seek professional help. A mental health professional can assess the situation, provide a diagnosis if necessary, and offer appropriate treatment options, which may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
How to Stop a Panic Attack
Stopping a panic attack can be challenging, but several strategies may help you manage and alleviate the symptoms. Here are some techniques to try:
Focus on your breath. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, counting to four, and exhale slowly through your mouth, counting to four. Repeat this deep breathing exercise until you feel more in control.
Ground yourself in the present moment by engaging your senses. Describe five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
Tense and slowly release each muscle group in your body, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head. This can help release physical tension.
Challenge Negative Thoughts
Identify and challenge negative thoughts that may be fueling the panic attack. Ask yourself if there’s evidence to support those thoughts or if they are based on irrational fears.
Practice mindfulness by focusing on your breath and staying present in the moment. Mindfulness meditation can help calm your mind and reduce anxiety.
Picture a calm and safe place in your mind. Imagine yourself in that place, focusing on the details and sensations. Visualisation can help shift your focus away from the panic.
Instead of fighting the panic attack, try to accept it without judgment. Remind yourself that panic attacks are temporary and that you’ve been through them before.
Take Medication as Prescribed
If your doctor has prescribed medication for panic attacks, take it as directed. It may help alleviate symptoms and prevent future attacks.
Move Your Body
Engage in gentle physical activity. Walking or stretching can help release tension and redirect your focus.
Connect with a Support System
Reach out to someone you trust. Talking to a friend or family member can provide comfort and support during a panic attack.
Be kind to yourself. Understand that panic attacks are a stress response, and it’s okay to seek help and take care of your mental health.
If you find that you’re experiencing frequent or severe panic attacks, it’s crucial to consult with a mental health professional. They can provide a more personalised assessment and offer guidance on coping strategies or therapeutic interventions tailored to your needs.
How to Prevent Panic Attacks
Preventing panic attacks involves a combination of lifestyle changes, coping strategies, and sometimes professional intervention. Here are some suggestions that may help:
Understand Panic Attacks
Educate yourself about panic attacks. Knowing what triggers them and the symptoms can help you recognise when an attack is coming on.
Engage in regular physical activity. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, promoting overall mental well-being.
Maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Ensure you get enough sleep, eat nutritious meals, and stay hydrated. These factors can significantly impact your mental health.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
Learn and practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery. These can help you manage stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness meditation can be beneficial in preventing panic attacks. Techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can help you stay present and reduce anxiety.
Reduce or eliminate stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, and certain medications that may contribute to anxiety.
Establish a Routine
Maintain a regular daily routine. Predictability and structure can help reduce anxiety.
Set Realistic Goals
Break down large tasks into smaller, more manageable goals. This can help prevent feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
Build a robust support system. Share your feelings with friends, family, or a therapist. Knowing you have support can be reassuring.
Limit Exposure to Triggers
Identify and limit exposure to situations or environments that trigger panic attacks. Gradually facing and overcoming these triggers with the help of a mental health professional may be beneficial.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Consider seeking therapy, particularly cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is effective in treating panic disorder and can help you identify and change negative thought patterns.
In some cases, medication may be prescribed by a healthcare professional. This is typically considered when panic attacks are severe or significantly interfere with daily life. Medication should be discussed with a doctor, and its use should be monitored closely.
Everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. Finding the best strategies that work best for you may take time. If panic attacks persist or worsen, it’s essential to consult with a mental health professional for personalised guidance and support.
Dr Clem Boonney
Dr Clem Bonney has experience in assisting people who have panic attacks. The provision of appropriate evidence-based care is essential in assisting those who suffer from this condition. Dr Bonney has assisted many people over the years with this issue.