A panic attack is sudden and intense feeling of terror without the presence of danger. Panic attacks are usually brief and frightening while they last. Sometimes there is a specific trigger, while at other times they seem to come “out of the blue“. While panic sensations are a natural response to danger, panic attacks are usually out of proportion to any actual danger you might be facing.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense anxiety or fear together with a surge of frightening physical sensations and thoughts and may include:
- Pounding heart
- Chest pains
- Having a heart attack/stroke
- Passing out
- Hot/Cold flushes
- Out of physical and/or emotional control
- Going crazy
- Unreality/detachment from yourself or your surroundings
What causes a panic attack?
Many people will experience one or more panic attacks at some point in their life. Evidence indicates that more than 25% of the population will have a panic attack. Others may experience continued panic attacks and will start to worry about how or when the next one will happen. When this happens the person is considered to have a panic disorder. Some may then stop doing certain things or going to certain places because they might have a panic attack there. When this occurs the person may have agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is not a fear of open places, as many believe it is. It happens when someone restricts their life because they fear having another panic attack.
The causes of a panic attacks are not clear but are generally attributed to a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking, and social stressors.
Some causes may include:
- Genetic predisposition
- Reaction to a traumatic event
- Physical illness
- Anxiety sensitivity - tendency for a person to fear anxiety-related bodily sensations e.g. chest pain
If you’re having a panic attack
- Don’t fight your feelings - the intense anxiety you are feeling is likely to be out of proportion to any danger you are actually facing. The attack will pass in a few minutes.
- Relax - use breathing control (counting slowly/slow breathing) and relaxation techniques (meditation) at the first sign of an attack.
- Challenge your fear - be aware of what you’re thinking and question yourself about your symptoms, what you know from past attacks and what you would tell someone experiencing the same symptoms.
- Give yourself time - Don’t distract yourself or ignore your feelings. Acknowledge what you’re feeling as “just symptoms” that will pass.
- Don’t avoid activities/situations - don’t let your panic prevent you from activities you enjoy. Ease yourself into these activities if you start fearing/avoiding them.
- Avoid self-medicating - some medication can be addictive. Get appropriate medical advice before taking any medication.
- Get help - talk to a friend, family member or a helpline like Lifeline (13 11 14). Visit your GP who can help identify the best treatment for you. If the panic attacks recur, and cause you distress, professional help is warranted. Seek a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Panic attacks are very treatable.
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