Understanding Panic Attacks

understanding panic attacksWhat are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are common, occurring in at least five per cent of the population. Many clients come to me who have experienced panic attacks. A common remark is that clients feel their panic attacks are misunderstood and dismissed by other people. Panic attacks are not signs of weakness but understanding panic attacks is not easy just as they are difficult to describe.

Panic attacks can happen in all kind of different situations and can last from 5 to 20 minutes. They are frightening and often you have no control of when they will happen. When are in a panic attack, your body goes into a ‘fight or flight’ mode. Your body tries to take in more oxygen resulting in you breathing more quickly and your body releases hormones, such as adrenaline, causing your heart to beat faster and you to become tense. All scary stuff.

What are the symptoms of panic attack?

People experiencing a panic attack will experience an onset of intense apprehension, fear or terror accompanied by physical symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, dizziness, palpitations, chest pains, tingling sensations, shaking, sweating and feelings of unreality. When experiencing this, it feels as though you have no control over these sensations and thoughts such as “I’m going to loose control”, “I’m going mad” or “I’m embarrassing myself”. These thoughts are misleading as they do not represent what is physically occurring. Unfortunately, once you start thinking these thoughts, you become more anxious resulting in the physical symptoms continuing (or getting worse). This results in an upwardly spiralling vicious circle of thoughts and physical symptoms.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that when most people have a panic attack, their natural reaction is to try and leave the situation they are in as quickly as possible. This avoidance brings temporary relief but increases the likelihood of further apprehension, negative thoughts, and physical reactions. A phobic reaction is developed. People get stressed of the thought of a panic attack so whenever they are in a stressful situation, this can trigger a panic attack.

Panic attacks are not harmful

The good news is that panic attacks, although unpleasant, cannot harm you in anyway. You cannot die of fright. If you can understand what is going on, you are able to start managing panic attacks.

Managing panic attacks

Here are 10 easy steps to take to help you manage panic attacks:

  1. Remember panic feelings are only normal reactions that they are exaggerated.
  2. They are not harmful and nothing worse will happen.
  3. Notice what is happening in your body now. Stay with the present. Slow down, relax, but keep going.
  4. Think about what might happen is unhelpful. Only now matters.
  5. Accept the feelings. Let them run through you and they will disappear more quickly.
  6. Monitor your level of anxiety: 10 (worst) to 0 (least). Watch the level go down.
  7. Stay in the situation. If you run away, avoid or escape it, it will be more difficult in the future.
  8. Take a few slow, deep breaths.
  9. Consciously relax your tense muscles. Feel yourself relaxing.
  10. Now begin to concentrate again on what you were doing before.

Remember you are not alone. There is help out there if you want to find ways of managing panic attacks. If you want to read further about managing panic attacks, you will find Panic Disorder website helpful which has helpful guides and tips to look at or Mind Website.  If you’d like to try to tackle the negative thoughts, you will find the blog post on negative thought and feelings useful in giving you tips on positive thinking.


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