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Panic Attack - What are they? How to cope?

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Panic is when anxiety occurs, like a wave, or suddenly like a bolt. It is an overwhelming feeling of anxiety which occurs suddenly, without warning, and often for no apparent reason. This is called a panic attack.

Panic attack symptoms

Physical symptoms build up, usually very quickly and can include:

  • Sweating

  • Palpitations - your heart pounding, so much you can feel it

  • Chest pains - tightness in the chest-panicking it might be a heart attack

  • Feeling sick

  • Struggling to breath,gasping for breath or choking

  • Sweating

  • Feeling dizzy or like you might faint

  • Numbness or pins and needles

  • Suddenly the urge to go to the toliet

  • Having shaky limbs

These symptoms are unpleasant and can be very frightening because of their intensity, causing the individual to feel like they are going to die (from a heart attack, suffocation etc) or faint. As a result of this fear, the person becomes scared of experiencing the next panic attack which then leads to the sense of panic ('fear the fear') and their physical symptoms of panic get worse.

No-one wants to experience panic attacks and so the person may start to avoid situations where they might occur (crowded places, public places, open spaces, enclosed places or places far away from home).

Panic attacks usually last from 5-20 minutes but can last up to one hour, although this can be as the first panic attack has triggered another.

It is important to be aware that the physical symptoms of a panic attack will not result in a heart attack or cause any physical harm.

How to deal with panic attacks

Dr Donna Grant (MBBS, MCRPsych, BSc Hons), Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, offers some top tips to help cope with panic:

1) Stay where you are

If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack. As the attack could last up to one hour, you may need to pull over and park where it's safe to do so if driving. Then pause for moment, observe your thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to these thoughts and anxiety. These feelings are normal - it's just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to.

It's important to see the situation through. Stick with the panic; it will pass.

2) Learn to control your breathing

People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains.

By learning to slow your breathing down, you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle.

Try to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then breathing out for three seconds. As you breathe, ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem.

3) Learn to use positive coping statements

When you are feeling anxious and panicky it can be helpful to have 'coping statements' which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn't harmful.

Such statements could be:

  • Panic is simply high levels of anxiety

  • By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring

  • My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn't last forever

  • I can continue without needing to escape or avoid

  • I have never fainted, choked, or had a heart attack

Reminding yourself of these facts can help to prevent further panic cycles happening.

4) Shift your focus

Many things can go through your mind during a panic attack, often very negative thoughts, for example thinking about disaster or death. Rather than focusing on these, try to concentrate on something else such as looking at a flower or a picture or something that interests or comforts you.

Alternatively, you could try creative visualisation. To do this, think of a place or situation that makes you feel relaxed or comfortable. Once you have the image in your mind, focus your attention on it and this should distract you from the panic which should then help ease your symptoms.

5) Challenge unhelpful thoughts

The way we think about things has an impact on panic. Many of these thoughts are out of our control and can be negative and unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of the unhelpful thoughts during a panic attack, these thoughts should be challenged as they are often based on incorrect assumptions. For example, misinterpreting the physical changes in the body during panic as "I'm having a heart attack". To challenge and answer this negative thought, you would ask: what could you have said to yourself that would have helped?

Becoming aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you recognise that you have them. Keeping a diary of what happens each time you panic can help you to spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you, so that you can think about how to deal with these situations in the future.

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