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Panic Attacks

Do you suffer from panic attacks?

If so, you are in good company! Over a lifetime about a quarter of us will experience one or more. While they are extremely unpleasant, they are usually fairly short-lived and although it’s really important to rule out other causes of your symptoms, they are in no way life-threatening

So what does a panic attack feel like?

This is how Sheila described it: “I was in the bathroom at work – I’d been in a difficult meeting and I just needed some time out to gather myself together. I was suddenly gripped by complete terror, I was struggling to breathe, I could feel my heart thumping and thought I was going to be sick. I just wanted to run away as fast as I could. After a few minutes it started to go away but I was scared to go back to my desk in case it returned.”

A panic attack is a sudden and very intense feeling of anxiety or fear accompanied by all kinds of unpleasant physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, racing heart, tightness across the chest, trembling, feeling that you’re choking, sweating, nausea or upset stomach and feeling light-headed. Some people confuse the symptoms with having a heart attack or think that they are going to collapse or go mad. They often report feeling unreal or detached, having a sense of losing control and a strong wish to escape.

It felt like I was going mad!

The most important thing to understand is that you are not going mad. Given a certain set of circumstances, anyone can suffer a panic attack. These sudden overwhelming feelings and sensations usually arise from a build-up of stress and anxiety and the constant firing off of what’s called the ‘fight or flight’ response, one of our basic (and very important) survival responses. A message of fear in your brain sends a signal to your adrenal glands that there is an emergency. They in turn release the hormone adrenaline into your body, which gives you heightened abilities to respond to emergency situations – that’s why you experience all those physical symptoms. Your body is doing its best to protect you from something it feels might be dangerous – gearing you to run away as fast as you can or to stay and fight with whatever is threatening you.

Who gets panic attacks?

Anyone can have one – they can affect people at any stage of life and in all kinds of situations. I have worked with a teenager called upon to read aloud in class who then started to find that even going into school caused her panic feelings; a young man who had moved to Australia to find work and found panic attacks suddenly struck him out of the blue causing him to return back to family in Ireland; a new mother who experienced an attack on her first trip to the supermarket without her baby and who then avoided any kind of similar outing without her child; a retired man who experienced his first panic attack in the weeks immediately after retirement even though he had never suffered from any kind of anxiety before.

Unfortunately the fact that you have had one panic attack can in itself make it more likely that you will have another one. What can happen is that the next time that you are in a situation where a panic attack previously occurred (or a situation resembling it), another one is triggered by the emotional memory. You then feel as though you are “walking on eggshells”, constantly vigilant in case you get another attack.

What can I do when panic strikes?

The good news is that it is surprisingly simple to stop a panic attack. Practise this emergency drill a few times when you are feeling calm and next time you feel a panic attack starting, put it into action – it will stop the emergency message from being sent to your adrenal glands.

  1. Relax! Slow down and deepen your breathing – this will start to reverse the adrenalin flow. As much as you can, try to relax all the tense muscles in your body – a short burst of exercise is great for this.
  1. Stop negative thinking! Say the word “STOP!” loudly and firmly inside your head. This will interrupt all those catastrophic thoughts. 
  1. Replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. You might tell yourself “I’m only having a panic attack, I know how to cope and it will be over very quickly if I relax” or, “My fear is making my heart pound harder, my heart is fine” or just “I am safe, everything is fine.” Different people find different messages useful so do work out in advance what will be best for you.
  1. Accept your feelings. Once you start to feel a little calmer, work out what emotions you are feeling. Your strongest emotion is probably going to be fear which is a positive emotion designed to protect you from harm. You might possibly feel some embarrassment that others may have noticed although actually it’s most likely no-one noticed a thing. Do acknowledge those feelings, be kind to yourself and try to keep an appropriate perspective.

What can I do to get rid of them once and for all?

It’s important to develop coping strategies that work for you. First make a list of situations which you want to stop avoiding. Then specify your initial goal such as “I want to go into a supermarket on my own and make a few purchases”. Specify the steps you’ve decided on in order to achieve your goal, perhaps by choosing a small quiet supermarket at first and going in with a friend that you trust. Visualise the situation before going into it, seeing yourself calmly selecting items and going to the check-out. Once in the situation, if you feel anxious, simply allow the anxiety to build as much as you can tolerate and then start using your emergency drill to reduce your fear. Make sure you are really kind to yourself while you work through your goals and be sure to congratulate yourself on the progress you make. If you have a bad day, tell yourself “OK that was a bad day, but overall I’m doing really well.”

And make a point of doing things every day that you enjoy and that lower your levels of anxiety – such as gentle walking, listening to music or guided meditation CDs, deep breathing or yoga exercises, being outdoors, calling a friend to chat. (for more information on other relaxation and mindfulness techniques click here) Get more in tune with how your body is feeling – notice for example if there is a bit of tension creeping into your shoulders. If there are things going on in your life which are causing you stress, talk things over with someone you trust or a counsellor. Maybe the panic is a sign that there are changes you need to make in your life – so be gentle with yourself as you work out what these might be. And be aware that substances like caffeine, alcohol, certain drugs, even too many late nights can worsen panic attacks.

So, although panic attacks are unpleasant, there is much that you can do to totally eradicate them from your life so that you can go back to living the best life that you can!

If you would like more information on panic attacks, go to my Panic Attack Counselling Cork page

Need more help?

If you have experienced panic attacks and would like to talk things over with me and learn some useful strategies to make them a thing of the past, call me today – Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork, 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!