I’ve been talking about depression recently so I thought it would be good to look at panic attacks, which can happen when you are suffering from depression, anxiety, a fear or phobia. You will be diagnosed with a panic disorder if you are experiencing frequent panic attacks but, fortunately for most of us, we will only experience a few in our lifetime…and for the fortunate ones, none at all.
My first panic attack came out of the blue as the plane I was on began it’s take off run. We were taking our young children on a plane for the first time and I had been happily chatting to them a moment before and I had really enjoyed flying since I was 4 years old. I had three more panic attacks and then didn’t fly for ten or more years but…I’ll leave that story for another blog!
The point is that I know about panic attacks from first-hand experience – how frightening they can be. I felt totally out of control and scared and I have seen clients who have taken themselves off to A & E, convinced that they are having a heart attack.
Do you know the symptoms
Panic attacks are a full body experience, they are a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms that can come from nowhere and appear very quickly (as I found out!). Put very simply, they are the result of a flight or fight reaction to a threat and are preparing us for extreme physical activity – to fight and kill the sabre-toothed tiger who is attacking us or to run back as fast as we can to the safety of the cave. Unfortunately, they can be triggered by perceived threats – things that we are worrying about in our minds that either haven’t happened yet or have but there is no action required. So we are left with the symptoms that result from our body’s resources being readied for action, with focus on getting oxygen to our muscles as quickly as possible, when there is nothing we can or need to do.
Symptoms can include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Nausea or a churning in your stomach
- Chest pains
- Trembling or shaky limbs
- Dry mouth
- An urgent need to go to the toilet
- A feeling of dread or even dying
- Numbness or a tingling sensation in your extremities
Your panic attack will include several of these symptoms and can last anything from 5-20 minutes and in extreme cases up to an hour! Although having a panic attack is frightening, it’s not dangerous. Having an attack won’t cause you physical harm or any lasting damage and it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be admitted to hospital for one. Just be sure that the symptoms aren’t anything else and if you are unsure speak to your GP or a nurse practitioner.
As with depression, it can be really hard to talk to someone about how you’re feeling and those close to you may witness your attacks so it’s difficult to hide the fact that you’re having them. You may not know what’s triggering your attack or it may be triggered by something that others might see as insignificant. Please don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed – your fight or flight system is operating exactly as it should and it’s out of your control. Fortunately, we don’t meet many sabre-toothed tigers wanting us for lunch but, unfortunately, that means we are left with an automated system that reacts to the threats in our mind as if they were a life or death situation.
The main two treatments are talking therapies and medication and, depending on how severe your symptoms are you, may need a combination of both.
Things you can do yourself
During an attack
Next time you feel an attack coming on try the following, it might not stop the attack, but in a lot of cases it will reduce it’s length:
As soon as you feel the slightest sign do some mindful breathing, breathing slowly, deeply and smoothly. In for a count of 6 and out for a count of 6 (or 4 or 5 as long as the in and out breath are the same length). This is the most effective thing you can do as it tells your brain that there is no life or death threat. Practice this breathing when you feel fine so that it’s easy to do when you feel the first sign of panic. Don’t try to fight it – it will fight back harder! Instead just let it be, remind yourself the attack will pass and that you aren’t about to die. Focus on something positive, peaceful and relaxing.
Preventing a future attack
Read some self-help books for anxiety and panic, preferably based on CBT principles (your GP should be able to recommend some)
Try to stop yourself from doing the worrying that makes your brain think that you are under attack – easier said than done I know but self-care is an important way to limit or stop the attacks. Have a regular massage or aromatherapy session or take a yoga or pilates class – whatever gives you time to relax and calm your mind.
The other important things you can do (these work for depression and anxiety as well):
Regular physical activity – it can be a workout at the gym or a gentle stroll in the sunshine, whatever is right for you
Look at your diet as there is increasing evidence that what we eat can have a tremendous impact on our mood. Avoid sugary foods and drinks; processed foods; caffeine and alcohol. If you’re a smoker, think about stopping or, at least cutting down. To make it easier, switch to a different brand and smoke at different times and places to try to break the habitually aspect of smoking.
Complications of panic disorder
As with depression, anxiety and stress, your panic attacks are likely to get worse if you don’t take any action. In addition, there is a chance that you will start to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or another addiction. You panic attacks may lead to you developing other fears or phobias as your mind is constantly on high alert, looking for other threats to your life – the good old fight or flight system again!