Panic Attacks

It can be difficult to imagine a panic attack, but for anyone who has experienced one, it is impossible to forget. Panic is an unpleasant sensation, and is made worse by the accompanying fear of death, of going insane, or totally losing control.

Although sufferers feel very alone, panic attacks affect at least 3-5 in every 100 people. Panic attacks are a form of anxiety where anxiety mounts to almost unbearable levels. Symptoms include dizziness, sweating, pounding heart, faintness, rapid pulse, and difficulty breathing. Many people believe they have heart problems or are going to die, but panic is the cause. After the panic subsides, people feel weak, nauseous, and exhausted.

Often there is no identifiable cause for the onset of panic attacks, although they can start during stressful periods or after illness. They may occur once, a few times, or frequently. Because panic attacks are so frightening, people live in fear of another attack. In an attempt to feel in control, people develop theories about causes of the panic, and start to avoid situations that might trigger the panic. As a result, they cut off from normal daily activities.

Professional help is needed to overcome an entrenched pattern of panic attacks – seek a psychologist, social worker, or psychiatrist who is experienced in this field. Cognitive behavioural therapy, which looks at patterns of thinking and teaches strategies for overcoming panic, is the most effective treatment.

In less severe cases, simple strategies can make a difference:

  • Eat healthy food regularly.

  • Avoid caffeine (in coffee, tea, cola drinks, chocolate).

  • Exercise – it helps you feel more positive, and burns off chemicals that feed the panic.

  • Breathe slower (anxiety leads to fast, shallow breathing).

  • When a panic attack threatens, slow your breathing.

  • As you breathe out, relax your body.

  • Put things in perspective – ask, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? Is this really likely?’

  • Practice Tai Chi or yoga regularly.

  • Keep interested in a variety of things – don’t allow panic attacks to restrict your world.

  • Dance to music.

  • Think, ‘Clear head, Calm body.’

  • Devise a coping statement – something like, ‘I might feel bad, but I’ll cope.’

  • Don’t dwell on bad feelings.

  • Recognise the role of thoughts in feeding anxiety, and try not to think negatively.

  • Retain your sense of humour.

  • Don’t allow fear to stop you doing what you want.