Panic Attacks – Why Do I Keep Getting Them and How Do I Stop Them?
Do you suddenly experience a surge of overwhelming fear and anxiety? Panic attacks are common, and up to 5% of Australians may experience one or two at some stage during their lifetime. To help, we’ve put together a guide to panic attacks, including the symptoms, management, and self-help tips.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense anxiety that happens without warning. Often, it is also accompanied by powerful physical reactions. Panic attacks are frightening – you may feel like you are collapsing, losing control, experiencing a heart attack, or even dying. The panic usually reaches its peak after 10 minutes but can take up to 30 minutes to subside. It can leave you feeling temporarily drained and exhausted.
While panic attacks aren’t life-threatening, they can be extremely scary and significantly impact your quality of life. The good news is, panic attack treatment can be very effective and it’s important to learn what to do in the moment when you feel an attack rising.
Many people experience just one or two panic attacks and the issue behind it goes away, such as when a distressing situation ends. However, if you’re having unexpected, recurrent panic attacks and are constantly in fear of another attack, you may have a condition known as ‘panic disorder’.
What causes a panic attack?
A panic attack happens when the ‘flight-or-fight’ response is triggered but there is no danger present. You may experience an attack even in relatively stress-free situations, such as while asleep or watching television.
Panic attacks can be caused by:
- Chronic stress – as this triggers the body to make higher than usual levels of stress chemicals
- Acute Stress – experiencing a distressing event can suddenly flood the body with large amounts of stress chemicals
- A sudden change of environment – such as a hot, stuffy room or walking into an overcrowded place
- Changes in the way your brain functions
- Some drugs and medications – such as tranquillisers, caffeine and alcohol – may also induce panic-like symptoms.
Symptoms of a panic attack
Panic attacks can cause several emotional and physical symptoms.
Physical symptoms may include:
- Rapid breathing
- A racing heartbeat
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Chills and tingling
- Shaking or trembling
- Hot flushes
- Tense muscles
- A feeling of tightening in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
Emotional symptoms may include:
- Feelings of anxiety and fear
- Irrational thinking
- Intense, repetitive worrying
- A feeling of dread or impending doom
- Fear of losing control or dying
What to do when having a panic attack
Here are some helpful strategies that can help you in the moment:
Recognise what is happening
Recognise that you are having a panic attack. Remind yourself that your body and mind are choosing to react intensely to thoughts that they don’t need to. Try to reassure yourself that while these symptoms of a panic attack are unpleasant, they are not life-threatening. Remind yourself that this will pass.
Control your breathing
Deep breathing can reduce the panic symptoms during an attack. As your breathing may become more rapid during a panic attack, this hyperventilation can add to the fear and anxiety. To combat this, focus on your breathing.
Take deep breaths in through the nose for a count of four, hold for a second, and breath out through the mouth for a count of four. This will help you to calm your breathing and reduce the physical symptoms to stop the panic cycle.
Find a focus object
Panic attacks can cause you to feel detached from reality. It can be helpful to find an object to focus your attention on. Even just feeling the texture and material of your t-shirt can help to shift the focus from your racing thoughts. You can also try to find something in a room such as a clock, plant or photograph. Look carefully at it and think about the pattern, the colours, and the size. This can help distract you from the panic.
Relax your muscles
Like deep breathing, relaxing your muscles can help to stop your panic attack by controlling your body’s response. To do this, relax one muscle at a time, and work your way through your body. These techniques will be more effective and easier to perform during an attack if you have practiced relaxing your muscles beforehand.
Imagine your happy place
Where is your most relaxing or favourite place in the world? It should be somewhere tranquil, calm, and quiet. Wherever that may be, picture yourself there. Try to focus on the details. For example, if your happy place is a beach, imagine sinking your toes into the warm sand or smelling the fresh salty sea air.
Self-Help Tips for Panic Attack Treatment
While panic attacks can leave you feeling powerless and out of control, there are things that you can do to help yourself. Here are some self-help techniques that can help you to overcome feelings of panic.
Avoid Caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol
These substances can trigger panic attacks in people who are susceptible. Also, be careful with any medications that may have stimulants in, like non-drowsy cold medications and diet pills.
Connect regularly with friends and family
Anxiety may worsen if you feel isolated. It’s important to reach out to people who care about you regularly. If you don’t feel like you have anyone to turn to, try to explore new ways to meet people and build strong friendships.
Exercising is a natural anxiety reliever. Try to get your body moving for at least 30-minutes each day. An exercise that requires moving both your arms and legs can be especially effective, such as running, walking, dancing, or swimming.
Get a good night’s rest
Poor quality sleep can worsen anxiety symptoms. Aim for at least 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night. If sleeping is an issue for you, check out these tips for a good night’s sleep.
Panic Attack Treatment
Panic attacks can be difficult to manage by yourself. Getting help as soon as possible can stop them from worsening and becoming more frequent.
It’s important to note that while panic attacks in themselves are not dangerous, the symptoms can resemble certain health problems – so it is always wise to visit your GP to rule out any underlying cause.
The most successful type form of professional treatment for panic attacks is therapy. Speaking to an experienced psychologist can help you work through your anxieties. One such therapy commonly used is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on correcting behaviours and thinking patterns that sustain and trigger your panic attacks.
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