If you’ve ever had a sudden bout of heart palpitations, struggled to breathe and felt a sheer sense of terror overcoming you without warning, then you might know what a panic attack feels like. Gasping for air and unaware of what’s causing your body to act in such a foreign way, for seemingly no good reason, is enough to strike fear in any of us.
A panic attack is something that many of us may experience at some point in our life. The symptoms of which can be so frightening, that even the subconscious thought of having another one, is enough to cause us to avoid not only whatever we were doing when we first had an attack, but anything in the future that could possibly lead to another one.
Panic attacks literally put the fear in us.
They may seem like a rare phenomenon to those who have never experienced one, but panic attacks are all too common. People often tell stories of their attack coming on suddenly, and for no obvious reason. They might have just been walking around the shops, or sitting at work. Others have just drifted off to sleep, before being awakened by frightening symptoms. From ringing in the ears to heart pain, from sweaty palms through to fainting, panic attack symptoms can vary from the quite obvious to the more subtle.
Many of the more severe symptoms of a panic attack are similar to a heart attack, so intense that people can end up in a hospital emergency department, thinking they’re going to die. Often those who first experience a panic attack would describe it in the moment as not only terrifying, but also feeling an even larger sense of panic because they don’t know what it is. Thereby actually causing the initial symptoms to worsen.
Essentially panic attacks are a type of fear response or anxiety attack, whereby the body turns on the ‘fight or flight mode’. At some point in our evolution, we developed the physiological response to defend ourselves or run away from danger. So a panic attack starts when a person’s subconscious brain senses a threat, alerting the body as though something bad is going to happen. Even when in reality, this may be not the case
Panic attacks, like other anxiety disorders that are not managed well, can lead to a limiting life of sorts. The brain, and the strange physical manifestations it causes, convinces people that the world is scary, or there is something wrong with them. Even one panic attack, never mind several, can stop people going outside, prevent them going to the shops, leading to them quitting their jobs and also causing them to give up on their dreams. As you can imagine, this can spiral into further anxiety and depression.
But panic attacks can be managed, and they can lessen over time, so much so that they needn’t happen again.
If you know what a panic attack feels like, then if it happens in the future, tell yourself it’s just a panic attack, rather than something more serious. Much of the panic around a panic attack is the feeling of impending doom, which actually makes you panic more. Roll with the symptoms, trusting that it will settle after a few minutes, and tell yourself you will be ok.
While shortness of breath is a symptom of panic attacks that can make it even scarier, consciously deep breathing can reduce symptoms of panic during an attack. If you’re able to control your breathing, you’re less likely to experience the hyperventilating that can make the panic attack itself worse. Focus on taking deep breaths in and out of your mouth slowly.
The brain is wired to maximise your survival, so if it’s perceiving a threat, even if you are unaware, it will kick in mechanisms to keep you safe. Exploring the why behind your brain wanting to protect you is also going to help. What could be causing your rise in anxiety? Is your brain overwhelmed with what’s happening in your life right now, or is something happening now that is triggering something in the past? Knowing why your brain wants to overprotect you will help you work out any possible causes, and work towards managing your anxiety. This is where professionals can help.
Your brain will always automatically protect you, it’s kind of awesome like that, but in doing so it will turn on scary physical symptoms sometimes to keep you safe. But in doing that, it may limit you and the life you actually want to lead.
But you can control more than you think, so make sure you also keep that in mind, even though your mind will tell you otherwise.