Today we’re diving into what panic attacks are, including causes, symptoms and treatment to help you or a loved one get the help needed…
What Are Panic Attacks?
“A panic attack is an experience of sudden and intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms.” – Mental Health Foundation
Many of us have experienced a panic attack at some point in our lives. They can feel very frightening and distressing, often coming on without any warning. The symptoms are not dangerous although at the time they can make you feel as though you are having a heart attack, are going to collapse or even die. Most panic attacks last between five minutes to thirty minutes. However, some can last up to an hour. Panic attacks can either occur unexpectedly or be triggered by a particular situation.
Having a panic attack is not a mental health problem itself but if you experience recurrent panic attacks and constantly feel stressed and anxious about experiencing them again, they can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder such as panic disorder. Some people have attacks once or twice a month, while others have them several times a week. This is when you really need to seek medical help.
Causes of Panic Attacks
- Genetic inheritance – it may be passed on through your family
- Chronic stress
- An existing mental illness / disorder
- Side effects of medication
- Chronic physical illnesses
- There may be no clear reason
- The physical symptoms are caused by the body’s “fight or flight” response to feelings of anxiety and fear.
Factors that may increase the risk of developing panic attacks or panic disorder include:
- Family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
- Childhood physical or sexual abuse
- Any event that was traumatic for you
- Stressful or major life-changing events – such as feeling lonely or isolated, the end of a relationship/divorce, being unemployed, having financial difficulties, homelessness
- Bereavement (loss of a loved one)
- Excessive caffeine intake
- Alcohol or substance misuse or withdrawal
Panic Attacks Symptoms
- Racing heart or irregular heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Breathlessness or hyperventilation
- Chest pain
- Feeling disorientated
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Feeling very hot or cold
- Sweating, trembling or shaking
- Feeling light headed, faint or dizzy
- Dry mouth
- Upset stomach
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying.
Treatment for Panic Attacks
If panic attacks aren’t treated, they can get worse and develop into panic disorder or phobias.
CBT is the most popular type of treatment to treat panic attacks and panic disorder.
CBT will help you to change negative thoughts and behaviours, mindfulness and stress reduction through learning relaxation techniques. Desensitization is a CBT technique whereby the therapist introduces the patient to situations that they are fearful of and teaches them how to manage their feelings of anxiety and ways of coping with panic symptoms encountered at each feared situation. You will also learn that the panic symptoms are not dangerous.
Medication: An antidepressant – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can be prescribed alongside CBT.
Self Help Tips
- Learn breathing techniques – how to control your breathing which will help calm you down when you are feeling stressed or anxious and also for when you have a panic attack. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Focus on breathing slowly and deeply through your nose and then breathe out slowly and deeply through your mouth. Count to five each time you breathe in and out
- Let the panic attack happen – ride it out. It seems like it is lasting forever but really it’s not
- During a panic attack, focus on a mantra such as “This is only temporary” “I just need to focus on my breathing”
- Once you have got your breathing under control, try to practice the 5 senses grounding techniques where you identify what you can see, feel, hear, smell and taste. Use the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 method so start with 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear etc. This will make you feel more aware, in control and in the present
- After the panic attack, pay attention to what your body needs – it may be telling you that you need to sit down and rest somewhere, to eat, to drink
- If you are able to, talk to a family member or friend (someone you trust) and tell them you have had a panic attack or are having them regularly. They may then be able to recognise any triggers and help you through an attack if they are with you if it happens again in the future
- Learn about panic and anxiety
- Keep a diary/journal to record each time y0u have a panic attack (record frequency, length, where it happened, how you were feeling, symptoms). This might help you to become aware of any triggers
- Resource yourself with information regarding coping techniques online, self help books and mental health apps
- If you are receiving treatment, attend any appointments that have been arranged for you
- If you have been prescribed any medication, ensure you take it
- Join a Panic Support Group where you can get advise and tips from other people who are also suffering from panic attacks
- Practice relaxation techniques – mindfulness meditation, yoga, muscle relaxation techniques, aromatherapy, massage, reflexology
- Eat regular meals to stabilise your blood sugar levels
- Regular exercise
- Avoid or moderate caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes.
- Stay with the person who is having the panic attack
- Stay calm yourself
- If you are able to, find a quiet place for them to sit down and help them to focus on their breathing
- Speak in a soothing voice
- Be non judgemental. Be positive, encourage and praise them in their efforts to recover
- Ask how they are feeling and what they need
- Encourage them to seek medical help
- If they are willing to accept further help, help them to research coping techniques online or self help books that may be useful.
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