Panic Attacks

Updated: May 18

Are you having panic attacks?

A panic attack is a rush of intense anxiety and physical symptoms.

They can be frightening and happen suddenly, often for no clear reason.

Signs of a panic attack

  • You may experience:

  • what feels like an irregular or racing heartbeat (palpitations)

  • sweating 

  • trembling

  • shortness of breath (hyperventilation) 

  • a choking sensation

  • nausea 

  • dizziness 

  • tingling fingers

  • ringing in your ears


Some people think they are having a heart attack because it feels like their heart is beating fast or irregularly, or even that they are going to die.

Panic attacks usually last from around 5 to 20 minutes. Although it may feel like something is seriously wrong, they aren't dangerous and shouldn't harm you.


You won't usually need to be admitted to hospital if you have had a panic attack.

What causes panic attacks?

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are caused by your body going into "fight or flight" mode, this also includes the lesser known "freeze" mode.


As your body tries to take in more oxygen, your breathing quickens. Your body also releases hormones, such as adrenaline, causing your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up.


Having a panic attack now?

You may also find that breathing exercises help, plenty of these exercises can be found on YouTube.


Helping a panic attack disperse.

1) Make yourself safe and stay where you are.

If possible, you should stay where you are during a panic attack. A panic attack and the after effects could last up to one hour, so if you are driving it would be best to pull over and park up.


2)Practice the pause.

Pause for moment, observe your thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to these thoughts and anxiety.

These feelings are normal - it's just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to.

It's important to see the situation through and ride the roller coaster out.


3) Learn to control your breathing

People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains.


By learning to slow your breathing down, you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle.


Try to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for three seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then breathing out for three seconds. As you breathe, ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem.


4) Learn to use positive coping statements

When you are feeling anxious and panicky it can be helpful to have 'coping statements' which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn't harmful.


Such statements could be:

- Panic is simply high levels of anxiety

- By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring

- My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn't last forever

- I can continue without needing to escape or avoid

- I have never fainted, choked, or had a heart attack


Reminding yourself of these facts can help to prevent further panic cycles happening.


5) Shift your focus

Many things can go through your mind during a panic attack, often very negative thoughts, for example thinking about disaster or death. Rather than focusing on these, try to concentrate on something else such as looking at a flower or a picture or something that interests or comforts you.


Alternatively, you could try creative visualisation. To do this, think of a place or situation that makes you feel relaxed or comfortable. Once you have the image in your mind, focus your attention on it and this should distract you from the panic which should then help ease your symptoms.


6) Challenge unhelpful thoughts

The way we think about things has an impact on panic. Many of these thoughts are out of our control and can be negative and unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of the unhelpful thoughts during a panic attack, these thoughts should be challenged as they are often based on incorrect assumptions.


For example, misinterpreting the physical changes in the body during panic as "I'm having a heart attack". To challenge and answer this negative thought, you would ask: what could you have said to yourself that would have helped?


Becoming aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you recognise that you have them. Keeping a diary of what happens each time you panic can help you to spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you, so that you can think about how to deal with these situations in the future.


Should you see your doctor about panic attacks?

A panic attack can make you feel like you're about to collapse or even die, but it's usually harmless. However, in some cases, you may need medical advice to rule out an underlying physical cause.   

Get medical advice if:

* Your panic attack continues after doing 20 minutes of slow breathing.

* You still feel unwell after your breathing returns to normal.

* You still have a rapid or irregular heartbeat or chest pains after your panic attack. 

* You regularly have panic attacks, as this could be a sign that you have panic disorder.


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