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Panic attacks

"I suddenly, for no reason, begin to feel panicky, as if something bad is about to happen. I know nothing is going to happen, but I panic anyway. I become shaky and my throat goes tight and I find it hard to breathe."

Panic attacks that come out of the blue are surprisingly common, especially in young adults. Panic attacks often manifest as an intense feeling of anxiety, with sweating, shakiness, a racing heart and a choking sensation, or a feeling of being smothered. Some people feel dizzy or nauseous; others have a feeling of unreality or feel that they are losing control of their mind. Some people say the symptoms are so intense that they feel they might die. A panic attack usually lasts only a few minutes, but it can be terrifying.

In fact, what is happening in your body is normal, but it is happening at the wrong time. You are experiencing a rush of adrenaline, which is putting your body into a state of readiness to deal with a sudden danger. This might be appropriate if you were confronted by a wild animal, but not when you are shopping in a supermarket. Because your anxiety has nothing to fix on, and is not diverted into any action (such as running away from the animal), it overwhelms you.

What you can do

You may find that simply understanding what is happening is enough to calm you. Work out a mantra to repeat to yourself next time it happens, such as: ‘This is just a panic attack. It is not dangerous. I am waiting calmly for it to be over.’ During an attack, try not to hyperventilate (panting), because this can make symptoms worse. Breathe in slowly and deeply: the No Panic website has a useful breathing exercise to help you through a panic attack. You may find it useful to focus on holding your breath for a moment before breathing out slowly.

Ways to prevent panic attacks. Daily breathing exercises, with a focus on breathing in slowly and deeply through your nose and out through your mouth, can be useful. Regular aerobic exercise and will also help to release tension and lift your mood. Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking, which all make panic attacks worse. Contact a support group for further advice and reassurance that you are not the only person experiencing these feelings (see Useful contacts below). 

What your doctor can do

A heart condition can sometimes give similar symptoms to a panic attack, so if you have any concerns about what you are experiencing, talk to a doctor. Also see your doctor if you feel you cannot cope with the attacks, or they are interfering with your life. Some people are helped by a type of psychotherapy (cognitive behaviour therapy). This aims to change misleading thought patterns that help the panic to build up. Drug therapy with an ‘SSRI’ (a selective serotonin-reuptake inhiibitor) is also an effective treatment, although it can make the attacks more frequent for the first week or two.

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Thursday, October 5th 2017

 


Useful contacts for Panic attacks

Click to see all the contacts that you may find useful in relation to panic attacks


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