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What is a Panic Attack, and How Can You Treat It?

Panic attack response depicted in 'get me out of here' slogan and red button symbolising panic and alarm

A panic attack can make you feel trapped and afraid. Learn how to cope with panic attacks below.

In 2013, people in the UK experienced 8.2 million cases of anxiety; whilst anxiety is upsetting and debilitating in itself, a panic attack sees this anxiety come to a head. Panic attacks are an intense and sudden onset of anxiety, lasting minutes at a time and leaving the sufferer debilitated. Many celebrities, including presenter Fearne Cotton, are now speaking out about their experience of having a panic attack.

But how do you know what a panic attack symptom is, and how can you cope with an attack?

Symptoms of a Panic Attack

You may feel as though you’re having a heart attack – that’s because a lot of the physical symptoms are similar to those of people experiencing a cardiac arrest. If you later realise what you actually went through was a panic attack, don’t be embarrassed by the confusion. Whilst panic attacks aren’t life-threatening, your body reacts as though you’re in a life-and-death situation. That ‘fight or flight’ mode has been activated, and you feel threatened.

Key symptoms include:

  • · Feeling dizzy, faint, shaky or light-headed
  • · A racing pulse, possibly with chest pain
  • · Difficulty breathing
  • · Tightness in your throat
  • · Nausea
  • · Sweating and feeling very hot, or the opposite: feeling too cold
  • · Sudden terror and dread
  • · Numbness or tingling in your hands and fingers
  • · Feeling detached from reality, or as if you are floating

What to Do if You Have a Panic Attack

Most panic attacks last from five to ten minutes, though some can be longer. Once you’ve had a panic attack, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have another one, but it does increase the likelihood.

If your panic attack happens in a large public space, such as a shopping mall or a concert venue, be reassured that many staff are now trained to deal with these kinds of incidents. Should you be somewhere on your own, or with someone who doesn’t know how to help, you can still get through it.

  • · Firstly, you need to regulate your breathing, which will help to lower your heart rate. Breathing exercises don’t have to be complicated: breathe in through your nose, then breathe out slower and longer through your mouth.
  • · Try to draw breath from your diaphragm, as shallow breathing isn’t helpful here. Imagine the breath going down into your chest.
  • · Repeat a short phrase or mantra to remind yourself this will pass – for example: ‘I’m not in danger, I am having a panic attack’, or ‘The slower I breathe, the calmer I feel’.
  • · Try to focus on the sensations around you, as long as they’re not triggering: what can you hear? What can you smell? Can you feel the chair you’re sitting on?
  • · Alternatively, focus on an object you can see. Zone out on everything else but that object; this practice is called ‘grounding’ and should help you refocus, rather than leaving your mind racing as fast as your pulse.
  • · Release muscle tension you might be carrying, like hunched shoulders or clenched fists. Do a ‘body scan’ and work your way around your body, imagining the tension in each part easing.
  • · Once a panic attack has subsided (and it will, even though it doesn’t seem possible at the time), you will probably feel drained and upset – this is normal. Get plenty of rest where possible, and don’t throw yourself head-first into a hectic routine.
  • · Caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes can all worsen panic attacks, so try to avoid them. Instead, stay hydrated and eat regularly to avoid low blood sugar levels.

How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

  • · Stay as calm as possible and try to take charge of the situation – talk in a calm voice and don’t dismiss the person as overreacting or attention-seeking.
  • · Help them focus on their breathing, taking slow and deep breaths together: in through the nose, out through the mouth, as mentioned above.
  • · Follow the other panic attack tips previously listed, and don’t worry if something doesn’t calm them down. Different people respond in different ways. The main thing is to find what does work to take away that panic – maybe a mantra with breathing exercises, or a body scan with breathing exercises – and guide them through it.
  • · It may help if they close their eyes as they breathe. If crowds and noise are definitely making things worse during the attack, gently move with them to a quieter area, but otherwise try to ride out the attack where you are.
  • · Remind them the attack will be over soon, and it is nothing to feel bad about. Tell them everything will be okay.
  • · Encourage someone who has regular or prolonged panic attacks to seek professional help, especially if they start regulating their behaviour to try and combat the panic (for example, they stop using public transport because they worry about having a panic attack whilst on the bus or the train).

Therapy for Panic Attacks

A therapist would look for the underlying cause of panic attacks by exploring possible triggers and associated memories with the patient. Reliving those memories will be distressing, but talking to a psychologist means you are in a safe and confidential space where you can develop strategies to deal with the difficult emotions and thoughts that come hand in hand with the panic and anxiety. You may be asked to keep a panic diary, logging your symptoms and potential triggers.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help with panic disorders, where someone has repeated panic attacks and may end up avoiding certain places or situations to try and cope. Through CBT, you can learn to overcome your fears and regain control.

You may find it also helps to get peer support from other people living with panic attacks, through charities like No Panic or Anxiety UK, but therapeutic intervention and, if a doctor suggests it, medication, is also worth exploring for panic disorders.

Written by guest contributor Vikram Das for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk). 

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