First thing’s first – what is a panic attack? The HSE say that a panic attack is ‘a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety.’ That definitely sounds unpleasant but if you’ve never experienced a panic attack, it can be difficult to imagine what that actually feels like. If I have a loved one who would like to understand I ask them to imagine the thing they truly fear the most in the world and then imagine how they would feel if that thing were to actually happen. Now imagine feeling that level of intense fear and anxiety totally out of the blue. Imagining it is obviously not entirely the same thing but it goes some way towards helping them understand. (I just want to point out that I don’t go around asking people to think of the thing that scares them the most because that’s not nice, please don’t do that! However, if a loved one specifically asks then I’ll broach it.)
There are a ton of symptoms that come with panic attacks and different people experience different ones. Symptoms can include:
- A racing heart, a pounding heart or palpitations
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Feeling short of breath or as though you can’t get enough oxygen
- Hyperventilating (breathing too fast which speeds up heart rate)
- A sensation of choking
- Trembling or shaking
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
- Chills or heat sensations
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Intrusive thoughts
- Uncontrollable crying
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- A fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- A fear of dying
Given the symptoms, it’s not surprising that many people think they are having a hear attack but it’s important to know that a panic attack will not kill you.
Panic itself is a good thing, it’s kept us alive for years. The ‘fight or flight’ response alerts us to potential danger and allows us to act in an appropriate manner. However, problems arise when this response is switched on when there’s no need, when there is no danger. It’s almost like a house or car alarm going off without reason.
There isn’t a definite answer as to why panic attacks occur*. Some people have specific triggers that they can easily identify such as particularly stressful events (losing a job, death of a loved one, etc) or major life changes (graduating college/uni, having a baby, getting married, etc). Panic attacks can also present with other illnesses. For example, a person with social anxiety disorder may have a panic attack before they’re due to give a presentation. Those who have experienced a panic attack may be so fearful and anxious about having another one that they develop panic disorder.
So, what can you do if you have a panic attack?
- Try to remember that the panic attack can’t hurt you. It is no doubt unpleasant and frightening but you will be okay.
- If you are hyperventilating try to focus on slowing your breathing. Breathe in for 4, hold for 1, breathe out for 4.
- Try to focus on something other than the panic attack. Pick an object nearby and notice everything about it. Describe it to yourself in as much detail as possible. Sometimes drawing your attention away from the panic attack can stop it.
- If your surroundings aren’t what triggered the panic attack pay attention to them. Do your best to ground yourself wherever you are. For example – I’m safe, I’m sitting at home, there’s nothing here that will hurt me, the tv is on, I can hear the clock, I can hear the birds outside, I know this place, I’m safe.
- If your surroundings are causing your panic attack try closing your eyes (if it’s safe to do so!). Sometimes reducing stimuli can stop a panic attack.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks speak to your healthcare provider. There’s no need to be embarrassed about having panic attacks. Around 2.4 million Americans experience panic disorder in a given year** so you’re not alone and it’s likely that your doctor will be familiar with them. There are medications that can be used to help treat chronic panic attacks (panic disorder) as well as a number or therapies such as CBT or DBT so don’t feel like you’ll be stuck having them forever.
I lived with panic disorder for almost ten years. When it was at it’s worst I had several panic attacks every single day. It was so bad for me because initially I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t have help. However, once I did have support and I was able to educate myself I found that the panic attacks subsided. I haven’t had one in almost five years but if I was to have one, I’d know how to deal with it. It can get better, there is hope.
Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Panic attacks are truly exhausting so give yourself a break! Take time to recover. If you are a loved one of someone who experiences panic attacks, keep in mind that they’ll probably be emotionally and physically drained after experiencing a panic attack, they may also be fearful of having another so do your best to let them know you’re there to support them.
Need help or advice? Click here for a list of support charities and organisations.