Panic attacks, what are they and how can they be managed?
Panic attacks can come on for no apparent reason and at any time of the day or night. This can be a very frightening experience. These panic attacks are a form of anxiety, we all suffer from anxiety to different degrees, however, when we suffer from intense feelings of fear/panic on a much more regular basis this can be interpreted as an anxiety disorder. Because panic attacks can come on so suddenly we can have an overwhelming sense of being out of control which further exacerbates the panic attack. Due to the physical changes we feel during the attack it is obvious why this is a disturbing and frightening experience.
Panic attacks are the physical manifestation of a fear/panic response, with the same chemicals that we have in the fight or flight response being released, the main one being adrenaline. This is the hormone that when released can help us in a dangerous situation such as being confronted by a wild animal, the release of adrenaline allows the body to take physical action such as heart rate increasing, rapid shallow breathing, increased oxygen and sugars being released into the muscles which allows them to work efficiently to either help us stay and fight or run.
Symptoms vary from person to person, but the list below shows a general guide of some of the symptoms which a sufferer may experience.
- Rapid heart beat
- Tightness in the chest or abdomen
- Increased temperature
- Decreased temperature
- Feeling faint
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty in catching breath
- Pins and needles
- Upset stomach
- Needing to go to the toilet
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
- Intense feeling of dread
- Loss of control
- Feeling disconnected
- Fear of dying
- A sense of needing to escape
In general panic attacks last for approximately 5-20 minutes, though this can of course vary significantly from person to person. Panic attacks can be experienced as a one-off event or can be much more of a regular event.
Normally these panic attacks are not dangerous; frightening, but generally not dangerous. We do however need to be mindful that some of the physical symptoms can be associated with other medical conditions, so it is sensible to seek advice from your G.P to ensure that there are no other underlying medical conditions. Your G.P may also be able to offer you advice or medication to help with anxiety if deemed appropriate.
The value of being able to speak about this and the impact it is having on you can’t be underestimated. This is your choice who you feel most comfortable speaking to, trusted family and friends can be a great source of help, however for some people they may not wish to ‘burden’ others. Being able to speak to a counsellor may also help you to explore what is going on for you not just about the panic attacks but about potential underlying anxieties which maybe exacerbating the problem. By effectively dealing with these anxieties this may help keep the panic attacks under control.
What can I do to help myself manage the panic attack?
- Breathing exercises. Slow deep breathing in through the nose (to the count of five), hold for three seconds then slowly release the breath out through the mouth (again to the count of five). Repeat 10 times. For children, visual can be helpful like smelling a chocolate cake, hold for three and slowly blowing out candles
- Remind yourself that this is a panic attack and even though it is unpleasant it will improve
- Grounding techniques, one example is using your senses. Find five things you can see around you, four things you can feel (texture of clothing, what you are sitting on etc), three things you can hear (the traffic, bubble of a radiator, birdsong etc) two things that you can smell (a fabric, soap, flowers/leaves etc) and one thing that you can taste (a mint, soft drink, biscuit, fruit etc). This is reminding us of familiar things bringing us back to what we recognise and feel comfortable with
- Sitting with both feet on the floor or standing if you feel safe and comfortable to do so
- If possible carry on with normal activities
- Talk to someone trusted.
Listen to your body after a panic attack, it may be that you need to rest for a short period as it can be draining leaving you tired, physically and emotionally. It maybe that you need to chat to a specific person who you know will have a calming effect on you or going for a walk.
Where possible keep to your normal routines, try not to let the panic attacks rule you, be aware of what they are, remind yourself that if you have seen the G.P and no underlying issues have been detected that this will pass. Try not to anticipate the return of a panic attack.
Exercise, a healthy diet and a reduction of life stressors can all help with the reduction of panic attacks.
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About Lucinda Milne
Lucinda Milne Dip Couns Reg MBACP
Awareness in Bereavement Training
Certificate in Autistic Spectrum Disorder
I have worked in the bereavement sector since 2013.
I have a wide variety of experience working with both adults and children covering a range of issues.
I have experience in working with children with additional needs.