We all experience feelings of anxiety, or even panic from time-to-time. In fact, having such a response to stressful situations can be described simply as a part of life.
Low level anxiety can feel motivational, as it spurs us on to act, get things done (e.g. to meet a deadline), or avoid danger. However experiencing panic, or panic attacks, regularly can be very debilitating, upsetting and disrupt a person’s day-to-day life.
What are panic attacks?
Panic attacks can be described as moments of intense fear or anxiety, where a mix of various physical, emotional and psychological symptoms can be experienced in one time.
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder where a key symptom is experiencing regular panic attacks that have four or more symptoms. Here are a few examples of panic attack symptoms:
Panic attacks can be triggered by things related to what makes us anxious. For example, someone who has social anxiety may have panic attacks when in a social situation. However, sometimes they can come on out of the blue, which can be very distressing.
What causes panic attacks and why do they occur?
It is important to note that understanding and knowing the cause of panic attacks can help reduce them. Not knowing how they occur and why can, understandably, make panic attacks more daunting and stressful.
The physical cause of a panic attack in many cases is when we find ourselves in a stressful situation and start breathing in too much oxygen via hyperventilation. This leads to a situation whereby we have too much oxygen in the body in relation to carbon dioxide, resulting in a panic attack.
For some, this can come out of the blue, and the hyperventilation was very subtle. For others, they will be able to recognise what causes them to hyperventilate in the first place, and thus be able to identify what triggers their panic attacks.
But why does our body respond to stress this way? The clue is in our innate defence mechanism called the ‘flight or fight’ response. When in danger, our body prepares us to act (be it to flee or to fight a predator) in a number ways.
For example, it will release adrenaline, signalling to the rest of the body it needs to act, and the heart pumps faster to get blood to the necessary muscles. For a more detailed body map of the flight & fight response, see the psychology tools information sheet below.
The important thing to note is that panic attacks are NOT dangerous. They are actually designed as part of the flight or flight response to keep us safe. However, this response can be triggered even when it is not life or death, making these symptoms seem strange and very uncomfortable.
How can I cope with panic attacks?
There are numerous techniques to utilise when having a panic attack:
- Try not to focus on your symptoms. We know this is easier said than done, but focusing on your panic symptoms can make the attack worse and last longer.
- Instead, engage in distraction techniques. A popular example is the 54321 rule. This will help you focus on the environment around you. Think of 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
- Remind yourself it will pass, because it is anxiety based. And anxiety will always come back down again. Remembering this can help calm you.
- Don’t use breathing techniques. If you have panic disorder, it is actually recommended not to use breathing techniques as this places more focus on your symptoms, making them worse.
- Keep track of your panic attacks. Keeping a record of when the attacks happen, where, and how long they last, and the triggers. This will help you manage and face that trigger more prepared, as well as help you monitor any treatment progress.
What can Brighter Life Therapy do to help?
Panic attacks can be very intense and upsetting, even more so when experienced on a weekly basis. For some, self-help techniques are not enough, and professional assistance is required.
If you believe you require professional help, feel free to contact us. We provide fast access to CBT treatment, which is the gold standard treatment for panic attacks. You can read about a case study of someone with panic disorder here.