What is a panic attack? Although the phrase ‘having a panic attack’ may be commonly misused in colloquial language, describing brief moments of shock or fear, there is nothing off-hand about a true panic attack. In short, they are the combination of a whole host of intense emotions, which often come on abruptly and present themselves with many physical symptoms, including*:
- a racing heartbeat
- feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
- feeling very hot or very cold
- sweating, trembling, shaking or tingling
- chest pain
- struggling to breathe or feeling like you’re choking
- feeling like your legs are shaky or turning to jelly
- feeling a sense of unreality, or disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings
During a panic attack, it’s common to feel like you’re:
- losing control
- going to faint
- having a heart attack
- going to die.
“At first, it just seemed like my heart was racing a little and my chest was slightly tight. But then, in the space of a couple minutes, these small feelings had spiralled, intensifying until my heart was pounding out my chest and I was gasping for air. I tried to stumble outside for some fresh air, but my whole body felt numb and tingly. It was like I'd completely lost control of reality, which was the most terrifying part of it all.” - Anonymous, describing their first experience with panic attacks
How It’s Different From An Anxiety Attack:
Although sharing some of the same possible symptoms, an anxiety attack is often short-lived and happens very much in relation to a particular cause of stress. Once the stressor goes away, as does the anxiety attack. However, panic attacks are much more unpredictable. It can be hard to trace a specific trigger or cause, and they often occur out of the blue and unprovoked.
Although a singular panic attack is not considered as a mental disorder that can be diagnosed by the DSM, regular panic attacks can happen in the context of another anxiety or PTS disorder or could be diagnosed as a panic disorder. This diagnosis will likely depend on associated feelings and the regularity of such attacks.
How to Cope With A Panic Attack:
It’s often not possible to think in a rational manner in the midst of an intense attack, but these are some great things to think about if you can feel the onset of panic:
- Focus on your breathing. Slowly breathe in and out, counting to five.
- Stamp on the spot. Some people find this helps control their breathing.
- Focus on your senses. For example, taste mint-flavoured sweets or gum, or touch or cuddle something soft.
- Try grounding techniques. This can help you start to feel more in control of your situation (which is useful if you experience dissociation).
After A Panic Attack:
- Self-care. It's important to listen to your body and be kind to yourself. If possible, it might be good to make sure you’re in a more relaxing environment for the rest of the day. Make sure you’ve eaten well, drink something soothing, and try to rest whenever you can.
- Tell Someone. These things can be tough to talk about, but if you’re worried about it happening again, tell someone how they may be able to spot the signs and how they could help you. Even just talking about it may feel like a weight of your chest, and like you’ve taken control of the situation.
Although there’s nothing fortunate about suffering from panic attacks or panic disorder, the good news is that they can often be successfully treated. Treatment is often a process of trial and error, as our brains are so intricately different, however often psychotherapy or medication is used (either singularly or together). The choice of medication can vary from person to person and could be either anti-anxiety medication, antidepressant or even beta-blockers to help control episodes of panic disorder. When it comes to deciding the best course of action, your GP will help you come up with a plan of action that will suit your needs best.
Where to seek help:
As mentioned above, in the first instance it’s best to book an appointment to speak to your GP or medical practitioner if you’re struggling with any of the above.
However, you can also reach out to:
- https://www.nopanic.org.uk/panic-attack/ [helpful relaxation tool]
- * https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/panic-attacks/#.W2w0Ci2ZMWI