What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a brief period of intense anxiety, accompanied by physical symptoms of fear, explains the Better Health Channel. There are several symptoms that can accompany this disorder, such as a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, and muscle tension. Often, panic attacks are unrelated to any external threat and occur frequently and unexpectedly. There is no set length of time for a panic attack, but it can last anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes. At the same time, it may take a few hours for the physical and emotional effects of the attack to subside.
Most people experience panic attacks at some point in their lives. In fact, approximately 35% of the population experiences a panic attack at some point in their lives. Alternatively, panic attacks can be called anxiety attacks.
When panic attacks happen frequently and for a long time, they can be seriously debilitating. It's possible for someone to avoid a lot of situations (like leaving their home or being alone) out of fear of getting attacked.
What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?
Panic attack symptoms rapidly develop, including:
Palpitations, aka a pounding heartbeat
A feeling of tightness or pain in the chest
Having difficulty breathing or feeling choked
Dizziness or faintness
Limbs that are shaky
Feeling numb or pinched
The need to go to the bathroom urgently
There are also emotional symptoms, such as:
A feeling of fear and anxiety
An intense, repetitive worry
An impending sense of doom
A person suffering from these symptoms may feel as if they are going to pass out due to their intensity. For others, this may even cause them to believe they are going to die from a heart attack, suffocation, or faint. Due to this fear, the person become scared of experiencing a panic attack again, causing them to feel more panicky ('fear the fear') and their physical symptoms of panic get worse, affecting their mental well-being in general.
An individual may start avoiding situations that may trigger panic attacks, like crowded places, public places, open spaces, enclosed places, or far-away places.
You should be aware that panic attacks do not result in heart attacks or other physical harm.
How to Handle a Panic Attack
According to Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science at the University of Bath, panic attacks should not be feared.
"Panic attacks always pass and the symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening," he says. "Tell yourself that the symptoms you're experiencing are caused by anxiety."
Don't look for distractions, he advises. "Ride out the attack. Try to keep doing things. If possible, it's important to try to remain in the situation until the anxiety has subsided."
"Confront your fear. If you don't run away from it, you're giving yourself a chance to discover that nothing's going to happen."
Start focusing on your surroundings as the anxiety passes and continue doing what you are doing.
"If you’re having a short, sudden panic attack, it can be helpful to have someone with you, reassuring you that it will pass and the symptoms are nothing to worry about," says Professor Salkovskis.
Additionally, to help regain control and reduce the symptoms of a panic attack, people can use the following ten methods.
1. Stay where you are.
In the event of a panic attack, you should remain in the same place as you are. Driving is not recommended during the attack, as it could last up to an hour.
After that, let your mind take a moment to ponder your thoughts. Tell yourself that your mind is reacting to the thoughts and anxiety you are experiencing. This is only a normal reaction of the body's alarm system, which is trying to protect us when it isn't needed to.
When it comes to panic attacks, seeing the situation through is essential. And, remember, the panic will pass; stay calm.
2. Have a script ready.
Panic attacks can be accompanied by racing, negative thoughts, which can exacerbate the condition. However, you can use a powerful tool to combat them: A script of positive thoughts.
“Write down encouraging words you can read to yourself during a panic attack,” says clinical psychologist Regina Josell, PsyD. “Your script should answer the negative thoughts. So if you feel like you’re going to pass out, tell yourself you won’t. If you feel like you’re dying, tell yourself you won’t die from a panic attack. The words you hear are powerful, and over time, they become your truth.”
Your script should be written when you are calm. Make sure you keep it handy, either in your pocket or purse or in your smartphone notes.
It's also possible to fight negative thoughts on the fly if you are in the middle of a panic attack and do not have your script with you. Say phrases such as "I am strong, and I can handle this," or "This is only temporary, and it will pass." out loud or in your head.
In addition to dealing with an attack if it arises, your script also prevents them. Having control over your panic attacks can calm your fear of having another one. You are less likely to experience panic attacks in the future if you are confident that you can handle them.
3. Take deep breaths.
It can be helpful to breathe deeply during a panic attack.
When a person is experiencing a panic attack, their breathing can become rapid and shallow due to chest tightness. Anxiety and tension can worsen with this type of breathing.
Consider taking deep and slow breaths instead, concentrating on each one. Count to four while inhaling and exhaling deeply from your abdomen. Fill your lungs slowly and steadily.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique, or "relaxing breath," involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 7 seconds, and exhaling slowly for 8 seconds.
It should be noted that deep breathing can aggravate panic attacks for some people. People in these situations can focus on doing something they enjoy instead.
4. Keep physically active.
The most effective way to make sure that you are physically active most days of the week is to establish a routine. Why? It has been proven that exercise reduces stress by a significant amount.
In addition to improving your mood, physical activity encourages healthy lifestyles. Begin gradually, and increase your activity level and intensity over time.
5. Find a focus object.
People can feel grounded when they focus on something physical in their surroundings when they are overwhelmed by distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories.
By concentrating on one stimulus, you can reduce other stimuli. Observing the item, you might consider how it feels, who made it, and what shape it has. As a result of this technique, panic attacks can be reduced.
Having a familiar object nearby can help ground you if you suffer from recurring panic attacks. Stones, seashells, small toys, and hair clips are all good examples of this kind of thing.
In addition to helping people cope with panic attacks and anxiety, grounding techniques can also help people cope with trauma.
6. Challenge unhelpful thoughts.
It is our way of thinking that causes panic. At the same time, it is difficult to control these thoughts, and many of them are unhelpful and harmful. In that regard, it is important to remember that they are only thoughts and not necessarily true.
Although many unhelpful thoughts occur during a panic attack, they are often incorrect assumptions that should be questioned. An example would be mistaking physical changes in the body for a heart attack. It would be helpful to ask yourself: what could you have said to yourself that would have helped you to change this negative thought?
7. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method.
An individual suffering from a panic attack may feel detached from reality. Anxiety can overpower other senses because it is so intense.
Using the 5-4-3-2-1 method is like grounding and mindfulness at the same time. By doing so, the person's attention is directed away from stress-causing factors.
In order to use this method, the user must proceed slowly and thoroughly through the following steps:
Take a look at 5 different objects. Spend a few minutes thinking about each of them.
Pay attention to 4 distinct sounds. Consider their origins and what makes them unique.
Touch 3 objects. Take into account their texture, temperature, and purpose.
Identify 2 different smells. For example, you might notice the smell of coffee, soap, or detergent on your clothes.
Name 1 thing you can taste. You might want to try tasting a piece of candy or paying attention to the taste in your mouth.
8. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking.
It is possible for these bad habits to exacerbate panic attacks. You may need the help of a support group or your health care provider if you are unable to quit on your own.
9. Picture your happy place.
In order to find one's happy place, one should go to a place where they feel relaxed. The most suitable place will vary from person to person. Ideally, it will be a place where they feel relaxed, safe, and calm.
If you're experiencing a panic attack, closing your eyes and picturing where you are can help. Consider how calm and peaceful it is there. Additionally, people can imagine their bare feet on the warm sand, soft rugs, or cool soil.
10. Seek counseling.
Those who suffer panic attacks and panic disorders can often benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). As you face challenging or frightening situations, CBT can help you change the way you see them and find new ways to deal with them.
The length of treatment can also vary depending on whether you're seeking CBT for individuals or groups. A therapist using exposure-based CBT will help you overcome a panic attack by exposing you to something that can trigger one.
CBT might also affect panic-related brain structures as well as changing behavior.
Researchers found that exposure-based CBT led to changes in the neural pathways responsible for panic symptoms among people who attended four weekly sessions. More research is needed, however, as this was a preliminary study.