Panic is an overwhelming feeling of anxiety which occurs suddenly, without warning, and often for no apparent reason, and comes on in a wave feeling. There is a rapid build-up of physical symptoms such as:
- Palpitations: a pounding heart beat which can be felt
- Feeling unable to breathe or a choking sensation
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Numbness or pins and needles
- Chest pains or chest feels tight
- Having shaky limbs
- An urgency to go to the toilet
These symptoms are unpleasant and can be very frightening because of the intensity, causing the individual to feel like they are going to die (from a heart attack, suffocation etc) or faint. As a result of this fear the person becomes scared of experiencing the next panic attack which then leads to the sense of panic ('fear the fear') and their physical symptoms of panic get worse.
No one wants to experience these panic attacks and so the person may start to avoid situations where they might occur (crowded places, public places, open spaces, enclosed places or places far away from home).
Panic attacks usually last from 5-20 minutes but can last up to one hour, although this can be as the first panic attack has triggered another.
It is important to be aware that the physical symptoms of a panic attack will not result in a heart attack or cause any physical harm.
Dr Donna Grant, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Priory Hospital, Chelmsford, offers some top tips to help cope with panic:
1) Stay where you are
If possible you should stay where you are during a panic attack. As the attack could last up to one hour, you may need to pull over and park where it's safe to do so if driving. Then pause for moment and observe the thoughts and tell yourself that your mind is reacting to the thoughts and anxiety. These feelings are normal, it's just the body's alarm system doing its job when it doesn't need to.
It's important to see the situation through. Stick with the panic, it will pass.
2) Learn to control breathing
People often hyperventilate during a panic attack. This means taking deeper breaths than normal which results in you feeling short of breath, causing a feeling of dizziness, disorientation and chest pains.
By learning to slow the breathing down you can help prevent the uncomfortable physical symptoms and stop the panic cycle.
Try to get a slower and more stable breathing rhythm by breathing in for 3 seconds, hold the breath for 2 seconds, and then breathe out for 3 seconds. As you breathe ensure that your stomach expands as you take each breath as this helps to ensure the breathing isn't shallow, which can add to the problem.
3) Learn to use positive coping statements
When anxious and panicky it can be helpful to have 'coping statements' which can be used to remind you that panic is not dangerous and isn't harmful.
Such statements could be:
- Panic is simply high levels of anxiety
- By remembering these symptoms are nothing more than anxiety, I can prevent further symptoms occurring
- My anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time. It doesn't last forever
- I can continue without needing to escape or avoid
- I have never fainted, choked, or had a heart attack
Reminding yourself of these facts can help prevent further panic cycles happening.
4) Shift your focus
Many things can go through your mind during a panic attack, often very negative thoughts, for example thinking about disaster or death. Rather than focusing on these, try to concentrate on something else such as looking at a flower or a picture or something that interests or comforts you.
Alternatively, you can try creative visualisation. To do this, think of a place or situation that makes you feel relaxed or comfortable. Once you have the image in your mind, focus your attention on it and this should distract you from the panic which should then help ease your symptoms.
5) Challenge unhelpful thoughts
The way we think about things has an impact on the panic. Many of these thoughts are out of our control and can be negative and unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of the unhelpful thoughts during a panic attack, these thoughts should be challenged as they are often based on incorrect assumptions. For example, misinterpreting the physical changes in the body during panic as "I'm having a heart attack". To challenge and answer this negative thought, you would ask: what could you have said to yourself that would have helped?
Becoming aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you recognise that you have them. Keeping a diary of what happens each time you panic can help spot patterns in what triggers these experiences for you, so that you can think about how to deal with these situations in the future.
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