The experience of panic and anxiety can affect anyone at any stage of their life. An estimated 5% of Australians will experience a panic attack at least once in their lifetime. However, despite their common occurrence, they are frequently misunderstood. This article will explore what a panic attack actually is and how to deal with one.
Panic and Fear
To understand panic, it is important to understand fear. Think of fear as your body’s automatic alert system that activates the moment you face danger, for example facing a dangerous animal. For most people, this would induce a sense of fear and panic which in turn kick starts your fight or flight response – where your body experiences a number of physical changes such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and sweating, all with the purpose of sufficiently preparing you to stay and defend or run for your life. As you can see, when faced with threatening situations, this is an important survival mechanism for us to have. This survival mechanism however can become hypersensitive and over-reactive, falsely triggering your automatic alert system in non-threatening situations – resulting in panic attacks. Put simply, a panic attack is your body’s exaggerated response to danger, stress and even excitement.
How do panic attacks arise?
Panic attacks happen at different times, for different people, for different reasons. Some people may only experience a single episode of panic then never again, while others may experience repeated episodes. You may notice that certain activities, situations or places trigger a panic attack, for example before an important appointment – while others may be triggered seemingly from nothing. Panic attacks can also manifest in a number of different ways. Physical symptoms of panic attacks typically arise quickly and can last anywhere between 5 to 20 minutes.
Common symptoms include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Rapid breathing, hyperventilation or feeling like you are choking
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Hot or cold flushes
- Trembling or shaking
- Numbness or tingling
- Pain in chest or stomach
- Fear of losing control
- Feeling disconnected from yourself and your surroundings (dissociation)
Common Misconceptions of Panic Attacks
Panic attacks are dangerous and can cause me extreme harm
While panic attacks can be a frightening experience, they are not life threatening. Some physical symptoms can become so severe that many people often mistake them for a heart attack. It is important to know that no matter the severity of these symptoms, they will subside, and they are not cause for extreme harm.
Panic attacks will only happen in specific situations
As previously mentioned, some people may be able to pinpoint specific triggers of panic in their day to day lives. However, panic attacks can, and often do, appear without warning. This highlights the importance of having healthy coping strategies in place (see below) should you experience an sudden onset of panic.
If I have a panic attack I will lose control
The thought of losing control is a looming fear experienced by many people who experience panic attacks, often contributing to an episode of panic itself. While the involuntary nature of panic attack symptoms can contribute this feeling, engaging in different types of therapy can help counteract the panic thought spiral. Introducing new, reasonable thought patterns can help deescalate a panic attack. For example, instead of “my heart is pounding, I’m going to have a panic attack”, try “let me try some slow breaths and counting, it will go away soon”.
All attack triggers should be avoided at all costs
While facing panic-inducing triggers can be confronting, some treatment methods actually encourage this! While this may seem counterintuitive, exposure therapy works by introducing triggers and learning to sit with the panic until it gradually passes. Over time, this works to extinguish the panic you would typically experience when faced with said trigger in your environment.
All panic attack symptoms are the same
While panic attacks are frequently associated with a list of common symptoms, this can look different from person to person. Some people may experience multiple of the aforementioned symptoms during an attack, while others may only experience one or two. It is also possible for you to experience a different combination of symptoms during different episodes of panic.
Strategies to help cope with panic attacks
Panic attacks can be a frightening experience, but there are many strategies that you can employ to help yourself cope.
Focus on your breathing
During episodes of panic, really focus on your breathing. Taking slow, deep breaths not only gives you a distraction to redirect your attention but will also help to slow your heart rate and subside any hyperventilation that you may be experiencing.
Try breathing in for a count of 4 seconds, then breathing out for a count of 4 seconds.
Focus on your senses
For example, try touching or holding something soft, tasting mint flavoured gum, or smelling something strong. This again allows you to redirect your focus on sensations outside of your panic.
Engage in grounding techniques
Grounding techniques are all about helping you feel in control. This is particularly helpful as it can counterbalance any dissociation you may experience during a panic attack. Try walking barefoot or focusing on the sounds in your surrounding environment.
Talk yourself through it
While this one can be difficult to do in the height of panic, it is important to remind yourself that while the symptoms you are experiencing are uncomfortable, they are not life threatening and they will pass. Try to sit with your symptoms and allow them to subside, this will reinforce your confidence in your ability to cope with them.
While it is helpful to engage in these strategies during the experience of panic, it is just as important to care for yourself following the event as panic attacks can leave you feeling exhausted.
Engage in self-care
Pay attention to what your body needs following a panic attack. You may want to take some time to rest somewhere quiet, or even have something to eat or drink.
Talk to a trusted person
If you are comfortable in doing so, you may want to disclose your experience with someone you trust. You may find it helpful to discuss how they can notice if you are experiencing another panic attack and things they could do to help you. if you’d like to speak to a specialist about this topic, book in to speak to someone today.
Bonevski, D., & Naumovska, A. (2020). Panic attacks and panic disorder. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338809489_Panic_Attacks_and_Panic_Disorder