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Stress Awareness Month: Pandemic stress has induced a spike in panic attacks

  • Priory has seen patient inquiries about stress treatment soar by more than 50% in a year
  • A Priory expert gives tips on ‘riding out’ a panic attack, which often accompanies periods of acute stress
  • One in four will experience a panic attack at some point
  • A panic attack can be severe, intense, and frightening and mistaken for a heart attack

Priory specialists have seen inquiries about private treatment for stress rise by more than 50% in 12 months – while inquiries about anxiety disorders have risen by a third.

During the pandemic, many who have experienced stress and heightened anxiety have also reported having panic attacks – some for the first time – leaving them mentally and physically exhausted.

Mental health charities and others say there's been a significant rise in people seeking help after experiencing panic attacks for a wide range of reasons including money, family relationship stress, and changes at work or their children’s school. 

A panic attack can be a very upsetting and troubling experience. Your heart is pounding, you start to feel faint, and you might be feeling nauseous, sweating profusely, physically shaking, hyperventilating, and struggling for breath. Sometimes the chest pain causes you to fear that you’re having a heart attack. This intense feeling can last between five and twenty minutes or longer.

About one in four will have a panic attack at some point. The attacks may not cause physical harm but can be debilitating.

A panic attack is when our fear response, which is usually only activated when we are in extreme danger, gets switched on at the wrong time,” explains Priory’s Dr Paul McLaren of Priory Hospital Ticehurst House. “They can come on randomly and even wake us up from sleep.

How to Cope with Panic

Dr McLaren says that if you know what to expect, there are things you can do; “The first one is always the most difficult. Once you have had one and come to understand what it is, then any further attacks will be easier to manage” he says.

He advises:

  • Think of the panic attack as a big wave. It will reach a peak, and then fade and stop. You cannot stop it yourself, but you can ‘ride it’ if you remember that the feeling is temporary
  • Distract yourself from the catastrophic thoughts which accompany the attack, and try not to buy into them. Remember that these thoughts do not correspond with reality, they are just part of the panic attack
  • Try to slow your breathing down even though you will feel that you need to breathe harder

If you manage to ‘ride the wave’ of your panic attack, you’ll need to take a few minutes to recuperate afterwards. Dr McLaren explains; “You will feel exhausted. When you panic you use a lot of energy, and you will probably need to rest. Take the time to settle down and think about what has just happened. Try to clear your head and just stay in the moment.

Lifestyle changes can help reduce panic attacks. Avoiding cigarettes and alcohol can help, along with making sure that you get enough exercise and sleep. Certain substances, including caffeine and cannabis, can sometimes trigger panic attack symptoms.

Whilst panic attacks can be distressing and difficult to cope with, if you can access effective treatment they can be reduced and resolved. Without expert support, your panic attacks may become worse and more frequent over time. If they are happening regularly that could be a symptom of panic disorder and you should seek help from your GP, or from mental health specialists like Priory. Often they can offer cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a talking therapy that focuses on developing the skills to manage the panic and anxiety. In other cases, medication may be appropriate, for example antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

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