Understanding Panic Attacks 1: What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a swift attack of pronounced fear and anxiety. Such attacks often strike with no warning or apparent reason. Some people may experience just one panic attack, while others may be plagued with recurring episodes. Repeating panic events usually occur after the sufferer is exposed to certain situations or events that “trigger” the onset of panic. While generally not dangerous in themselves, over time, panic attacks can begin to weaken the person physically, psychologically and emotionally. In extreme cases and without treatment, panic attacks can lead to development of clinical panic disorder.
Understanding Panic Attacks 2: Who has panic attacks?
The condition affects millions of people worldwide. It is thought that 10 percent of the world population suffers from panic attacks to some degree, yet many remain undiagnosed or underdiagnosed. Young adults appear to be most prone to panic attacks. Women are twice as likely to experience attacks as men. Some evidence suggests a genetic link, so panic attacks and panic disorder may run in families.
Understanding Panic Attacks 3: How will I know if I am having a panic attack?
A panic attack can be identified through various classical markers and symptoms, including:
- elevated heartbeat and/or palpitation
- chest pain
- trembling, shaking
- dizziness and lightheadedness
- muscle tension, sweating
- hyperventilation or shortness of breath
- upset stomach, churning stomach
- hot or cold flashes
- numbness or tingling sensations
- feeling detached from surroundings
- fear of dying
- fear of losing control or sanity
Many of the symptoms of panic attacks are similar to those of a heart attack. The former is not inherently dangerous, whereas the latter can be deadly. It is best, therefore, to seek emergency medical help for any sudden appearance of a combination of the symptoms above, particularly if the individual has never displayed such symptoms before.
Understanding Panic Attacks 4: What cause a panic attack?
Many panic attacks seem to occur with no clear reason; they just come out of a clear blue sky, so to speak. However, attacks may be rooted in past traumatic experiences such as a car accident, public humiliation, family conflicts, bad relationships, divorce of parents, death of a loved one and so on. An attack may happen when the person is exposed to specific events or stimuli that bring the past event alive again and trigger a panic response.
Panic attacks are closely linked to stress. Triggers may include current stressful life events as well as a stressful working or living environment. Heredity is also believed to play a role in attacks.
Understanding Panic Attacks 5: What should I do during an attack?
The duration of a panic attack can range from 5 to 10 minutes; it rarely lasts for more than 30 minutes. But in that short time, the sufferer may cycle through some or all of the unsettling symptoms listed above. Since the elevated heartbeat is linked to and can exacerbate the other sensations, it is critical to assert control of your breathing during a panic attack. Breathe as slowly and deeply as possible. Try breathing in slowly for three counts, then hold your breath for the next three slow counts. Then, exhale over three slow counts.
Repeat this process until you feel more calm. If you can stand, rise slowly and move around. It also can be helpful to breathe into a paper or plastic bag. This allows you to rebreathe your CO2. This helps correct the blood acid level that has been put off-kilter by excessive breathing.
While working on deep breathing, try to divert your attention from the source of your panic. Apply some positive imagery and slowly replace your anxious thoughts with more pleasant, tranquil ones. If you can, pick up something enjoyable that will occupy your mind such as working a puzzle or playing sudoku.
Though you may not feel like it, a quick excursion outside to unleash some pent-up energy can work wonders too. Gather with those with whom you feel comfortable and get up a game of Frisbee or toss a football. As you try various coping strategies and settle on the ones that are most effective at quelling your panic attacks, the incidence and severity of your episodes should gradually decrease. Understanding panic attacks begins with understanding you.