Panic attacks

What is a panic attack?

woman having a panic attack

A panic attack can make you feel like you’re losing your mind.

Panic attacks strike without warning and can be very frightening. They manifests as a sudden surge of indeterminate fear and anxiety which makes you feel helpless and vulnerable, and during which you might even feel like you’re in danger of dying. If left untreated, they can become a regular occurrence, and can greatly interfere with your day-to-day life. But panic attacks can be treated, and the sooner you do something about them, the better.

But first of all, let’s take a look at the symptoms of a panic attack.

Symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks can manifest in many ways, several of which are listed below. Not all panic attacks will have all the listed symptoms, but it’s as well to know what a panic attack might consist of.

  • hyperventilation, shortness of breath
  • chest pains
  • shaking, trembling, feeling dizzy
  • tingling sensations
  • feeling a strong urge to run and hide
  • sweating and nausea
  • feeling faint
  • feeling like there’s a knot in your stomach
  • feeling very confused
  • feeling emotionally distressed
  • feeling detached from reality
  • feeling that you might die

All in all, a very unpleasant experience. But one that will not cause you any real harm, and definitely won’t kill you!

Panic attack or anxiety attack?

The terms panic attack and anxiety attack are often used to mean the same thing, but strictly speaking the two terms relate to somewhat different situations. This article is primarily about panic attacks, but I mention anxiety attacks only to point out the differences.

A panic attack is marked out by the symptoms listed above (although, as I’ve already said, a panic attack might only consist of some of the symptoms).

An anxiety attack, on the other hand, is usually due to excessive and prolonged worrying, whether over a real problem or over some imagined situation. Although the symptoms of an anxiety attack are generally similar to those of a panic attack, they are usually less intense. Another major distinction is that, unlike a panic attack, anxiety can often build up over a long period and can be very persistent.

I suppose it would be true to say that an anxiety attack is usually about something very specific, so the person at least has a good idea of the cause, whereas with a panic attack the cause often remains a mystery.

What causes panic attacks?

A panic attack can typically be caused by major life changes, a few examples of which are listed below.

  • marriage break up or divorce
  • the death of a partner or loved one
  • loss of job or career
  • having a baby
  • being diagnosed with a major illness, etc.
panic-attacks-200

A panic attack can be very distressing, but it can’t really harm you!

Any of these things is enough in itself to pile on the pressure. And when the pressure’s on, it’s an easy matter to mid-read the situation and react as though your very life is under threat.

It’s important to keep in mind that a panic attack might actually have no obvious cause, and might seem totally random. Obviously this can be worrying, since you’re likely to assume that if it’s happened once, and for no apparent reason, it can happen again. Very often though a panic attack is an isolated one-time event, and you shouldn’t assume it will recur.

if you have had panic attacks before, they’re likely to be triggered by certain situations. If you have a phobia, for example, that can become a trigger event. Just seeing a rat or a spider, or whatever you are phobic about, can be enough to initiate the stress response.

If you have a speaking event on the horizon, or an important business meeting, that can create enough anxiety to cause an attack. And sadly, if you have several attacks, they can start to occur almost randomly, and a vicious cycle can begin.

Forewarned is forearmed

Knowledge is power where panic attacks are concerned. As long as you understand why they occur, and as long as you realise that, no matter how bad it feels, it’s not going to kill you, then you’re in a much better position to cope with them.

A panic attack, in reality, is no more than an overblown physical response to danger, whether real or imagined. It can be very uncomfortable, certainly, and even to the extent that you feel very ill, but you have to keep in mind that it really is just a wildly over-the-top automatic response to a perceived danger. As long as you keep your head, you can get over a panic attack quickly.

The fight-or-flight syndrome

Way back in man’s history, we developed a very useful survival technique. To ensure that we could deal with any deadly assault, or any other extreme danger, we developed a mechanism whereby we could go into an immediate state of readiness. This has become known as the fight-or-flight syndrome (or the fight-or-flight response), since it readies the body to fight effectively, or to run away from danger.

The mechanism is activated by the autonomic nervous system, which primes the individual for extreme exertion, whether fighting or running away. The autonomic nervous system operates largely without any conscious input, and affects such things as heart rate, digestion, salivation, perspiration, respiratory rate and sexual arousal. Some of these things are speeded up, while others are shut down, or slowed down.

Physical effects of the fight-or-flight response

If a bodily system cannot contribute to the upcoming fight or flight, then it will be dampened, whereas if it has something to contribute its functions will be accelerated.

So you have the situation where you start to get sweaty and your breathing is faster (although probably shallow), and your heart feels like it’s pounding in your chest, but there’s a reason for all this. You’re sweating to keep yourself cool in the coming exertion. You’re breathing faster to get plenty of air into your lungs because you’re going to need it, whether you’ll be fighting or running. And your heart is racing in order to get plenty of that nourishing and oxygen-rich blood to your muscles.

On the other hand, any sexual arousal that was present will come to an abrupt end because to continue would be counterproductive, and your digestion will virtually come to a halt because that’s of no real importance under the circumstances. Your mouth and throat will feel dry as your salivation comes to a halt – your body needs all that fluid for more important purposes (as sweat to keep you cool, and as fluid for your muscles and your brain). The blood clotting function of the body speeds up to better manage injuries.

image of the cardio-vascular system

Your body will promote the action of essential systems, and limit or close down non-essential ones.

Certain blood vessels will constrict, reducing the blood flow to some body parts, such as the face, that aren’t essential players in the upcoming events. This is why your face might appear pale and pasty and you might feel strange, tingly sensations.

Certain other blood vessels, on the other hand, will dilate, to get more blood to the parts where it’s desperately needed. Energy resources will be released to fuel your muscles, and your muscle tension will increase to prepare for the fight.

That’s why your legs might feel wobbly, or jittery, or stiff.

Fuelled by hormonal action

All these changes will take place at a very fast pace, and they are the result of certain hormones being released into the bloodstream. Very powerful hormones that bring about very dramatic changes, and very quickly. And those hormones can stay in your system for quite a long time, which is good news if you’re really under a great and imminent threat, but not so good if you just got really upset because someone in front of you is driving really badly.

And that’s one of the downsides of this survival response – it can be triggered by quite minor things, and still you will be left with your system flooded with powerful hormones that are left unused, but which are causing unnecessary changes in your physiology. Is it any wonder you sometimes feel unsettled and nervous, and you can be left feeling very ‘edgy’ for a long time, maybe several hours, after what turned out to be something minor and unimportant?

If you are in fact facing a deadly situation, the response will probably be different depending on whether you’re male or female. A man is more likely to get involved in a physical confrontation (whether because he feels inclined to or because he feels it’s expected of him as a man), whereas a woman will very likely look for a more low-key resolution to the situation. She will be more likely to talk her way out of trouble, defusing the situation with words, or, failing that, take off running.

Dealing with panic attacks

As mentioned earlier, one of the best weapons against a panic attack is knowledge. Simply knowing something about the causes of such attacks, and the way they develop, can make them seem a lot less frightening.

Also, once you realise that it is basically nothing more than a bunch of physical effects causing you a lot of discomfort, then you can start to neutralise them.

  • for example, you can make a conscious effort to breathe slowly and evenly
  • you can tense your neck and shoulder muscles as hard as possible, hunching your shoulders up close to your ears, hold it for a second or two, and then relax as much as possible, dropping your shoulders completely
  • you can get rid of much of the tension by simply shaking your hands and shaking one foot after the other
  • you can take a big deep breath and hold it for a second or two, then let it out with a big, heavy sigh
  • you can turn your neck this way and that, easing the muscle stiffness in that area
  • you can make two very hard fists and keep them clenched for a few seconds, then open your hands and shake the tension away
  • you can tense your jaw muscles, then relax them
  • you can massage the area round your eyes, and press your palms against them
  • you can visualise imaginary controls in your brain, seeing them dangerously high, right up there in the red zone, and then make those dials swing steadily to the left, simultaneously feelingl the tension falling away from you
  • you can tell yourself that this is no more than a stack of physical effects. They’re uncomfortable, sure, but not dangerous. They won’t kill you!
  • you can repeat something soothing to yourself. Mentally repeat phrases like: “Deep breaths … calm down … I can handle it … deep breaths … calm down … I can handle it …”, and so on

Take control!

Just by taking action you will be sending a clear signal to your subconscious mind that you’re now back in full control. So your physical actions will be calming you down, and your thoughts will be supporting the actions. Within a minute or two, you can be fully in control, and the more often you do this calming down procedure, the more effective it becomes.

Pretty soon, you’ll be able to calm down from a panic attack in a matter of twenty or thirty seconds, and once you’re doing that the attacks are likely to stop altogether since you’ve regained a good level of control.

Nervous breakdown?

Having a panic attack doesn’t mean you’re having a nervous breakdown! When that happens, it’s a sign that you’ve reached the limits of what you can cope with. Your mind simply refuses to take on any more of anything, since it’s at overload already. A panic attack could be an indicator of an imminent nervous breakdown, but it’s not necessarily the case (and frankly, it probably isn’t).

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