Treating Panic Attacks
Panicking about panic?
Have you ever experienced an unexpected sudden feeling of apprehension or fear, accompanied by a series of physical changes, such as breathlessness or the sensation of choking, heart racing or heart palpitations, tingling in your extremities, dizziness, butterflies in your stomach, sweating and/or trembling? At this time, did you think that you would have a heart attack, faint, lose control, or go crazy? You may have been having a panic attack. If so, you are not alone. Each year around 1 in 10 people experience at least one unexpected panic attack.
So what happens during a panic attack? Bodily sensations, which may be part of the human body's healthy anxiety response, are perceived in a catastrophic way. Do you think that the changes in your heart rate are indicative of your having a heart attack? Or that the feelings of “unrealness” or racing thoughts mean you are going crazy? The anxiety and fear that these thoughts cause may lead to the “ fight or flight response” being triggered. This response is designed to assist you to fight or flight (that is run away) from dangerous situations (such as a person chasing you down a dark alley). For example, your heart and breathing rates increase so that your body is able to pump extra oxygen to the muscles and adrenalin is released, allowing you to feel more energetic.
Following a panic attack, it is not uncommon for people to avoid situations which they associate with panicking or activities which cause physical changes similar to those experienced during the panic attack (such as exercising or drinking coffee). What do you avoid? Do you try to distract yourself when you start to notice bodily sensations? These strategies may assist you to avoid panic attacks in the short-term, but they do not assist you to decrease your fear of bodily changes. Thus, they do not decrease your risk of panic attacks in the long-run (in fact, they may increase your risk!)
The first part of improving your ability to manage panic attacks is to gain a greater understanding of what is happening in your body when you experience a panic attack. Learning some relaxation strategies to assist you to feel more confident in your ability to manage your emotions may also be helpful. Next, try to focus on altering your thinking when bodily changes occur. After consulting your doctor and being reassured that you do not have heart disease, remind yourself that the changes, rather than being dangerous, are just your body's way of keeping you safe. Rather than trying to avoid these sensations, allow yourself to experience them.
Learning to manage panic attacks can be challenging. If you are having difficulty doing this, I can probably help. Alternatively, as with any mental or physical health issue, it's a good idea to chat to your G.P. about treatment options.