Mental Health

Panic attacks – what you need to know

Panic attacks are a sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety. They can often seemingly appear out of nowhere and can incredibly distressing and frightening.

During a panic attack you get a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. It can often feel like you’re losing control, with symptoms ranging from nausea and dizziness to hot flushes and sweating.

Here, Gael Lindenfield, a psychotherapist and author, shares her tips for recognising and coping with a panic attack.

Symptoms of panic attacks

If you are prone to anxiety, difficult periods might provoke a panic attack. They can be very frightening if you’ve never had one before and don’t recognise the symptoms and how to deal with them.

Symptoms can occur very suddenly, often without any warning and for no apparent reason. They can include:

  • the sensation that your heart is beating irregularly (palpitations)
  • the sensation of being detached from the world around you (depersonalisation)
  • sweating
  • trembling
  • hot flushes
  • chills
  • shortness of breath
  • choking sensation
  • chest pain
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • feeling faint
  • numbness or pins and needles
  • dry mouth
  • a need to go to the toilet
  • ringing in your ears

Because the symptoms are often very intense, you may feel like you are having a heart attack or, worse still, dying. The fear of having a heart attack can then add to your sense of panic.

What to do if you’re having a panic attack

The following strategy is based on the advice of Anxiety UK, a charity that helps those with anxiety disorders.

Step 1: Reassure yourself with the facts

Use informed self-talk to quell the thoughts that have been produced by your feelings of fear. Here are some statements that will counteract the most common fears:

  • This is not dangerous. If this was a heart attack your symptoms would not reduce if you slowed your breathing, sat down or left the situation, as they often do when you are having a panic attack. All your other symptoms are normal physiological reactions during an attack of anxiety.
  • I am not going to collapse. Your blood pressure increases when you experience anxiety, making you less likely to faint.
  • I can cope. You have a strategy and you are in control.
  • I don’t need to run away. You will gain control and if you run away the panic attack wins and will go on winning. People can and do carry on with highly responsible jobs while experiencing and controlling these symptoms. Nobody except you is likely to notice that you are having an anxiety attack.
  • Panic attacks pass. No one can sustain a panic attack forever – usually they do not last for longer than an hour.

Step 2: Slow down your breathing

Take control of your breathing by doing the following exercise. Repeat until you feel your breathing has returned to normal.

  1. Breathe in deeply from your diaphragm (count to six)
  2. Rest (count to two)
  3. Breathe out slowly (count to 12)
  4. Rest (count to two)

Step 3: Engage yourself in a distracting activity

To stabilise your breathing and take your mind off your attack, do something that distracts your attention away from your body. This could, for example, be work, a crossword, simply counting backwards from fifty or how many objects of a certain colour there are around you.

Step 4: Review your lifestyle

Check that you’re giving yourself enough time to de-stress your mind and your body on a regular basis throughout the day. But don’t overwhelm yourself with different goals. Instead choose a few ideas that you think could particularly help you at the moment and make an action plan to help you to integrate them into your life.

Practise this strategy regularly and use it whenever you become aware of minor anxiety symptoms such as fluttering feelings in your stomach. If you do then have a panic attack, you will know the routine and apply it almost automatically.

Extracted from How to Feel Good in Difficult Times by Gael Lindenfield

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