Having a panic attack feels like nothing else on earth. It’s a horrible feeling brought about by a rush of an intense psychological event. Without warning and for no apparent reason, you may be struck by an overwhelming sense of doom – an anxiety that is so powerful and so real that it stops you dead in your tracks. You may think you’re going crazy or, worse still, that you’re about to die!
Some people don’t get panic attacks at all, others have only ever had one – and a memorable occasion that will certainly have been. But there are also many recurrent sufferers where the onset of an attack may be triggered by a specific set of circumstances that makes them feel in danger and unable to escape. This can include situations such as being stuck in a lift with other people, an irrational fear of public speaking, or standing on a high viewing platform looking down.
Regardless of whether you are healthy, or whether your panic attacks form part of a larger mental health issue such as panic disorder, depression or social phobia, you should make sure you get professional help soon. From a psychotherapy point of view, panic attacks are a treatable condition. Learned coping strategies will help you deal with the symptoms as they arise, while specific counselling and psychotherapy treatments will enable you to regain control of your life. For more information on the different types of psychotherapy treatments available, visit Southdowns Psychotherapy.
What are the signs and symptoms of a panic attack?
A panic attack usually develops very quickly, reaching its peak within 10 minutes and lasting no longer than 30 minutes or so. The signs and symptoms of a panic attack affect both body and mind, and the scary thing is that they are often similar to very serious health conditions and sometimes can be mistaken for a heart attack or stroke. They can include:
- shortness of breath
- racing heartbeat
- chest pains
- hot and cold flushes
- feeling nauseous
- muscle weakness
- tingling sensation or numbness in hands and feet
- dizziness and fainting
- feeling detached from reality
Could it be a heart attack?
In the heat of the moment, it is easy to confuse the signs of a panic attack with those of a heart attack, particularly since the physical symptoms can be extremely severe. If you are experiencing symptoms, it is wise to call 999 since sometimes a medical diagnosis is the only way to get clarity quickly and you certainly don’t want to take any chances.
Take note if your symptoms include:
- severe chest pain or pressure
- burning digestive discomfort that feels like indigestion
- shooting or aching pain that radiates down the shoulder into the arm
- discomfort between the shoulder blades
- pain travelling towards the jaw area
These indicators might signal a heart attack and you should get emergency medical help without delay. A heart attack peaks straight away, while a panic attack takes around 10 minutes to peak.
Panic attacks often cause intense feelings of impending doom, like something terrible is going to happen to you. This anxiety may be the result of chronic stress, a recent traumatic event, or trouble coping with life’s ups and downs.
How do you treat a panic attack?
With counselling and psychotherapy, panic attack sufferers can start to understand and manage their symptoms and eventually overcome attacks and reduce their frequencies. Treatment for panic attacks will also help to develop new skills needed for coping successfully with future attacks.
Most therapists will recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as one of the most effective treatments for panic attacks and panic disorder. The therapy focuses on the thinking and behavioural patterns that bring on an attack and works on reshaping these unhelpful thought patterns. Relaxation therapy and exposure therapy may also be used.
For therapy that goes deeper into the root of the problem, including childhood experiences, past relationships and personal difficulties, psychotherapy is an extremely useful tool as it can remove any underlying issues that may trigger panic attacks.
In addition to professional therapy, it’s a good idea to have a toolbox of self-help tips at your disposal, so that you can cope with panic and minimise your exposure. Try the following strategies:
- Regular relaxation practice such as mindfulness, meditation or yoga to help combat stress in your life
- Deep breathing exercises to help with hyperventilation and to calm yourself down in anxious situations
- Do about 30 minutes of regular exercise (such as walking, cycling, swimming, or dancing) each day to relieve stress and anxiety
- Get around eight hours of good quality sleep every night to help keep your body and mind in a healthy balance
- Have plenty of social contact with your family and friends to prevent any isolation-induced anxiety symptoms from occurring
- Avoid artificial stimulants known to provoke panic attacks in some people, such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine
- Raise awareness and education about anxiety and panic attacks to help you recognise symptoms as they arise
For a detailed overview, as well as a look at some of the evidence based approaches to treating panic disorder, you may find this fact sheet from Anxiety UK useful.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.
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