What is a Panic Attack?
Ask anyone who’s ever had a panic attack, and they will probably say that it comes on quickly, accompanied by an all-encompassing physical and emotional feeling of complete terror. It’s not unusual for someone experiencing such an attack to feel as though they are dying or having a heart attack — even though there’s really nothing deadly happening.
Symptoms can include:
- rapid breathing
- feeling breathless
- feeling very hot or cold
- feeling sick
- feeling faint or dizzy
- tingling fingers
- shivering or shaking
- abdominal cramping
- a racing heart, or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
- a fear of losing control or ‘going crazy’
- a fear of dying
Anxiety is also often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart or knots in your stomach, but what differentiates a panic attack from other anxiety symptoms is the intensity and duration of those symptoms.
Panic attacks typically begin suddenly. Without warning, they can strike at any time such as when you are out shopping, driving a car, or even in the middle of a business meeting. Over time, you may notice that they’re triggered by certain situations, and the instances can be very occasional, or may occur frequently. Usually they reach their peak level of intensity in 10 minutes or less, and then begin to subside, the whole thing lasting between 15 and 30 minutes. Afterwards you may be left feeling physically and emotionally drained.
Understandably, people who experience repeated panic attacks often become very worried about having another, and so may make changes to their lifestyle so as to avoid those situations.
Why Do We Get Panic Attacks?
It’s helpful for those who experience panic attacks to understand what they are and why they happen.
Our ancient ancestors faced dangers on a daily basis. In their struggle to survive they had a choice, they could either stay and fight whatever the danger was that they were faced with, or they could run away to safety – and this is what we now refer to as ‘fight or flight’.
This fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare your body for one or the other.
Humans have both a sympathetic and a parasympathetic nervous system.
- The sympathetic nervous system is the one in charge of regulating the fight-or-flight responses, and during a panic attack it goes into high gear, resulting in an increased heart rate, your breathing becomes quicker, and your digestion slows in order to send resources elsewhere.
- The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand is responsible for the rest-and-digest responses.
In our daily lives, both systems are active at all times. But when you’re in danger, the sympathetic response takes over — and the parasympathetic response isn’t able to cancel it out for a little while, even though there’s no obvious danger.
So, as part of this response, when we are confronted by a dangerous situation, our body mobilizes its resources, sending blood away from our extremities (e.g. hands and feet) and into the major muscles, producing adrenaline, and increasing heart rate so that we are better equipped to fight off danger.
A panic attack then is a feeling of intense fear that triggers a severe physical reaction even though there is no real danger or apparent cause.
Usually, panic disorder strikes people in their late teens or twenties, but children can suffer from it as well, and so can those who are considerably older. Twice as many women are affected as men, and the fear of an attack can actually trigger one. Luckily, the condition is very treatable.
Factors that may increase the risk of developing panic attacks or panic disorder include:
- Major life stress, such as the death or serious illness of a loved one
- A traumatic event
- Major changes in your life, such as a divorce or the addition of a baby
- Smoking or excessive caffeine intake
- History of abuse
Each person experiences panic attacks for different reasons, but every panic attack is a stress response, a reaction to being under pressure, overwhelmed, or afraid. Sufferers have either experienced a traumatic event, are struggling to cope with something unsettling or upsetting, or may be suffering from general anxiety issues.
Of course, knowing what’s happening when you get a panic attack won’t stop them from happening. But it may help make it a little less scary the next time you get one.
What Can I Do if I Get a Panic Attack?
- Of those people who experience a panic attack, many have just one or two in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, maybe when the stressful event or situation ends. Although they aren’t life-threatening, they can be frightening and significantly affect your quality of life. One of the worst things is the intense fear that having had one attack, you’ll have another one. You may fear them so much that you avoid certain situations where they may occur.
Here are some tips to remember if you have a panic attack
- Emotions are like a wave – they will come and they will go – and the feeling will subside in time
- Anxiety cannot increase forever. There is a point at which our anxiety cannot become any higher and our bodies cannot maintain that peak level of anxiety indefinitely. At that point, there is nowhere for anxiety to go but down. It is uncomfortable to reach that peak but it is important to remember this anxiety will even out, and then go down with time.
- You have experienced this before, you know it will pass
- It is easy to get lost in a panic attack. When you feel yourself about to have one, bring yourself into the present moment by asking yourself – What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel and smell? Keep yourself grounded in the present moment. This helps calm you down by allowing your brain to focus on the present, rather than the distressing thoughts that are triggering the attack.
- Avoidance is anxiety’s best friend. Avoidance now will mean carrying that anxiety into the future.
So if you’ve had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks, or spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may decide that it’s time to find a way to stop them. While researchers are still trying to find out why we get them, there are ways to get rid of them.
Hypnotherapy for Panic Attacks
Hypnotherapy can be a very effective treatment. The sessions themselves are very relaxing, comfortable and safe, with no drugs or unpleasant side-effects. Each consultation is completely private and confidential and you have the added assurance of being able to have a free initial consultation to ask me any questions that you may have, and to feel at ease about the process.
So don’t let panic attacks decrease the quality of your life. Check out my contact details below, and get in touch to set up your free 30 minute initial consultation. Please note, if you are not local to my practice, I can provide this consultation over Skype.