You may feel increased fear as you fight to take your next breath as your chest walls feel like they are caving in. It feels like someone is standing on your rib cage. You become more aware of the inability to catch your next breath; it is as if you are drowning underwater. You may think to yourself, “ I can’t breathe…I am going to lose control…. I am going to die.”
These are common thoughts and feeling of someone who is having a panic attack. Shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and rapid heart rate are just some of the scary reactions that can occur during a panic attack. These symptoms can intensify and lead to sweating, trembling, and the feeling of suffocation.
Often those who have panic attacks suffer from chronic anxiety. It’s important to understand that you can’t control a panic attack once it starts and that when you try to control it can make it worse. There is often a fear of getting a panic attack in public and feeling trapped in an uncomfortable situation and becoming embarrassed and humiliated. When one’s anxiety starts to ramp up into a panic attack it can make you feel like you are going crazy. Remember no one is judging you for having a panic attack most people are worried just like you would be if you witnessed someone having one.
Although you cannot wish your panic attack away or get rid of them with a medication you can learn how to better manage your anxiety over time and decrease the number of panic attacks you experience.
Anxiety is a natural response to stressful, dangerous and unfamiliar situations. We all experience a sense of unease, distress or dread depending on different life challenges. It helps us stay alert and aware but for some people, this protective system can become overactive resulting in chronic anxiety. When our body is in a constant state of arousal it can put a lot of stress on the body which can result in panic attacks.
Anxiety is both an emotional and physiological response to a threat that our brain perceives- this can be real or imagined. We may play out the worst-case scenarios in our mind or worry about all the things that could go wrong or what we need to do.
When we are in anxiety the body links into the sympathetic part of our nervous system also known as the “fight or flight” system. This system has evolved over the years as a survival instinct from our ancient ancestors. The body automatically begins to produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol which are stress hormones which increase the heart rate, improves oxygen flow to major muscles, pain perception drops, and hearing sharpens. As this happens, we lose access to our frontal lobes that can think bigger picture and problem solve.
Although anxiety is here to help us at times it can become extreme and this can result in anxiety disorders and panic attacks. When we live in a state of chronic stress and never allow our body to drop in our parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest” there can be a number of consequences. We are not meant to live in anxiety or chronic stress yet many of us do. It can be helpful to understand how these systems work and how we can bring back more balance to our nervous system and thus life.
Risk Factors for Anxiety and Panic Attacks
- Stressful life events such as the death of a loved one or divorce
- Trauma or witnessing traumatic events either in childhood or as an adulthood
- Ongoing stress and worries such as work responsibilities, family conflict, and financial woes
- Living with a chronic health condition or life-threatening illness
- Anxious Personality
- Other mental health disorders such as depression
- Family history of anxiety or panic disorders
- Using drugs or alcohol
What is A Panic Attack?
There are two main types of panic attacks- ones that are cued by a stressor and others that appear to come out of the blue. Often when they do occur out of the blue one can recognise that anxiety is playing a key role in their life. Once one has a panic attack there is often a fear about having another one in the future. This fear can affect one’s behaviour resulting in them avoiding places or situations that may trigger one or where one feels they cannot escape if they do have one.
Panic attacks and anxiety may feel similar as they share a lot of the emotional and physical symptoms. You can feel both of them at the same time but when a panic attack takes over the symptoms becomes extreme and often feel overwhelming or like you might be dying.
Symptoms of Panic Attack
- Feeling like one is losing control or fear of dying
- Detachment from the world or oneself (depersonalisation)
- Accelerated Heart Rate or Heart Palpitations
- Chest Pain
- Shortness of Breath
- Tightness in throat or feeling like you are chocking
- Dry mouth
- Chills or hot flashes
- Trembling or shaking
- Numbness or Tingling
- Nausea, upset stomach, abdominal pain
- Feeling Faint or Dizzy
Although we can move through our day experiencing different levels of anxiety a panic attack involves server and disruptive symptoms. The physical symptoms of a panic attack are intense as the bodies autonomous “fight or flight” system takes over.
When a panic attack starts to take over it is important to recognise that it is just a panic attack and to allow it to wash over you while being compassionate with yourself. Resisting it will only cause more panic. With time you can start to work to decrease the stress in your life to prevent them from taking over. Here are some tools that can help you if you are experiencing them. It is also important to consult with your doctor and therapist.
Tools To Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks
- Recognise The Signs: Remember you are not dying when you start to experience a panic attack. Try to not judge yourself but instead accept that this is your body being hijacked by your sympathetic nervous system and that the symptoms will soon pass. Just allow yourself to be with them, try to breathe and talk yourself through it.
- Use Deep Diaphragm Breaths: Anxiety has specific breathing patterns that are linked to short shallow breaths. When you feel panic it is important that you notice your breath and work to get your air to the bottom of your stomach instead of just in your lungs. Then work to extend the exhale longer than the inhale this helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest”.
- Mindfulness and Self Compassion: Mindfulness is the ability to be present without judgement. Many of us struggle to notice what is occurring in the here and now but instead are stuck in the past or worrying about the future. Training our mind to notice what is occurring for you hear and now and to become more present can help you overcome anxiety and reduce the chances of panic attacks. Also, the more mindful you are the more you will catch the symptoms that lead up to anxiety and panic. You can then start to use some tools and skills to help release it before it builds to a full panic attack.
- Exercise: Studies have shown that 20 minutes of exercise a day can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. Exercise floods you with endorphins which are feel good hormones. Exercise can help boost your mood, increase relaxation and relieve anxiety.
- Relaxation: It’s important to take time to relax and unwind in life. If you find you are always on the go you are setting yourself up for anxiety and panic. Brining activities into your life like yoga, meditation, bubble baths, or anything else you find brings you a sense of calm and peace is important. Our body and mind need time to recover from our fast pace lifestyles if we want to be resilient and not burnout.
Over time you will start to build trust and confidence within yourself. You will begin to believe and experience that truth that you are going to be okay even when you experience anxiety and panic attacks. Work to find different tools and skills that can support you through this. Your anxiety and panic may be telling you it is time to set more healthy boundaries and to focus on self-care. Remember there are professionals that can help you with this and anxiety and panic attacks can be successfully treated, it just takes you being willing to do things a bit differently.
Quest Psychology Services are specialists in providing therapy for anxiety and panic attacks within Salford, Manchester. To discuss getting help for you or a loved one call us on 07932737335