A panic attack is a severe attack of anxiety and fear which occurs suddenly, often without warning, and for no apparent reason. It is an exaggeration of the body's normal response to fear, stress or excitement. Panic attacks are extremely frightening and involve physical symptoms, including shaking, feeling faint, dizzy, confused or disorientated, rapid heartbeats, dry mouth, sweating, ringing in ears, hot or cold flushes, tingling or numbness in hands/ feet and chest pain.
During an attack, you may fear that the world is going to come to an end, or that you are about to die or go mad. The most important thing to remember is that, however dreadful you may feel during an attack, this is NOT going to happen. Panic attacks always pass and the symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening. The following is based on various useful resources provided by MIND – the leading mental health charity.
If you are having a panic attack, try cupping your hands over your nose and mouth, or holding a paper bag (not plastic!) and breathing into it, for about 10 minutes. This should raise the level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and relieve symptoms.
Other first-aid tips include running on the spot during a panic attack. If you feel unreal, carry and object, such as the photograph of a loved one, to anchor you in reality, or finger a heavily textured object (e.g. a strip of sandpaper). You could also distract yourself, by trying to focus on what is going on around you.
- The first step is recognising that you have the power to control your symptoms.
- Confront your fear – do not run away from it. You need to tell yourself that nothing bad is going to happen and the symptoms you are experiencing are caused by anxiety. Try to keep doing things and, if possible, do not leave the situation until the anxiety has subsided (Salkovskis, 2010)
- Accept that a panic attack is unpleasant and embarrassing, but that it is not life-threatening or the end of the world. By going with the panic, you are reducing its power to terrify you.
- Learn creative visualisation – for example, imagine you are in a place that symbolises peace and relaxation for you . You can practice this anywhere but, until you have got used to doing this, try sitting in a chair with your limbs as floppy as possible, and think of calming images.
- Use positive, present-tense affirmations – you can use visualisation to focus on situations that you fear. Imagine the situation and speak positively to yourself: 'I am doing well', 'This is easy'. These can be said silently or out loud.(NB: If you have been used to thinking negatively, over a long period of time, you will need to practice every day.)
- Learn a relaxation technique, which focuses on easing muscle tension and slowing down your breathing.
- Practice correct breathing – to avoid hyperventilation (over-breathing), which leads to panic attacks. Avoid breathing shallowly, from the upper chest, and breath more slowly from the abdomen. Put one hand on your upper chest and the other on your stomach. Notice which hand moves as you breathe. The hand on your chest should hardly move but the hand on your stomach should rise and fall.
- If necessary, make changes to your diet – eat regularly and avoid sugary foods and drinks, white flour and junk food to prevent unstable blood sugar levels , which can contribute to symptoms of panic. Caffeine, alcohol and smoking all contribute to panic attacks and are best avoided.
- If the self-help does not help, consult your doctor
- Therapies that can be considered include: Drug Therapy, Psychotherapy, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Behaviour Therapy as well as various Complementary and Alternative Therapies (e.g. acupuncture, aromatherapy, homeopathy).