According to Beyond Blue, up to 40 percent of people will experience panic attacks in their lifetime.
Panic attacks are actually a very common phenomenon, affecting two in five people. They occur as a sudden burst, or rush, of intense and traumatic physical symptoms that take a hold very quickly. A panic attack is roughly defined as onset of sudden, acute disabling anxiety. Symptoms of a panic attack are;
- Muscle spasms
- Shortness of breath
- Heavy sweating
- Tunnel vision
- Heavy and intense heart beats
- Fear that you are going crazy
- Tingling and chills in your extremities
If you have experienced a panic attack in your lifetime, you understand how hard it is to explain to people. Physically there is nothing wrong with you, and you may look fine, but on the inside, it feels like you are being torn apart. People may doubt that there is even anything wrong with you, and doctors can dismiss your claims and simply prescribe you a myriad of antidepressants and anxiety pills, which in some instances can exacerbate the problem later on.
Many people have experienced a panic attack and believed that they were having a heart attack or stroke. Recognising that you suffer from panic attacks is the first step in getting them under control. Seeing a doctor and having a full physical exam also helps many people in the initial stages, as they will find that physically they are fit an healthy.
Your Body and panic attacks
Understanding what your body is doing during a panic attack can be very helpful for many people, as they can rationalise what is happening during an episode.
Humans throughout our evolution have developed the widely known fight or flight response to threatening stimuli. When this response it triggered, the brain sends a signal to the rest of the body to either prepare to fight to the death, or run. This message leads your body to secrete adrenaline into your blood stream, which causes a few things to happen.
- Your muscles tense up in preparation to strike or run quickly
- Your pupils dilate, improving vision, but reducing peripheral vision
- Your heart rate increases to provide your organs and muscles with more blood
- Your breathing becomes rapid and shallow to increase oxygen content in your blood
When a panic attack creeps up on you, you can get stuck on fearful thoughts, which leads to you increasing the anxiety you are experiencing, as you can’t let go of the fearful thought. This creates a mini cycle where you let the fear overwhelm you, and you feel like you are losing control because of the fearful thought.
Deal with a panic attack before it happens
Panic attacks can feel very sudden, but if you are able to recognise the signs early, you can work to stop it in its tracks.
If you every find yourself slightly anxious about a situation, try not to get stuck in your own head. Panic attacks generally occur because you feel a slight twinge of anxiety about something, as everyone does, and then it snowballs. If you notice that you are sweating heavily and breathing differently than normal, take charge right away. Try to move away from being stuck within your own thoughts and overanalysing your body in these situations, its hard but we have some tips that could help you.
Deal with anxiety quickly
If you notice these symptoms creeping up on you, taking action will help to prevent a full panic episode. Here are a few things you can do to calm down your bodies natural mechanisms of defence.
Deep, deliberate breathing
When people experience a panic attack, their breathing becomes shallow and rapid, which is handy if you are being chased by a lion or fighting off a tribal attack, but times are a little different these days. Shallow breathing can also decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in your system, which can lead to you feeling dizzy and light headed, as your body needs to maintain a very specific amount of chemicals in your body at all times.
To get your breathing in check, find a nice area when you can sit down or relax your body. Hold your hand on your stomach, and take a deep Breath in for 5-6 seconds. Then hold your breath at this peak for 5 seconds. Then breathe out slowly for 5-6 seconds. Wait 3-4 seconds before you repeat. While doing this, it can for some people be beneficial to look at the second hand of their watch to time it. This will distract your mind from what is happening from your body, and the feeling of anxiety can dissipate rapidly.
Maintain Involvement in group conversation
Some people turn inwards on themselves during a panicky episode, which can lead to a downward spiral of negative thoughts. If you are in a group setting with people you are comfortable with, let them know you aren’t feeling too good, and are a bit nervous, but continue the conversation while focusing on breathing. By actively contributing to the group, you will start to forget about the anxiety you were previously feeling, and it will also prevent you from listening to your inner voice that is in everyone’s mind.
Lie down and relax your muscles
If you are at home or somewhere where you have the ability to lie down, you have the perfect opportunity to relax your body. Go to a couch or bed, lie down, and deliberately think about relaxing your muscles while following the deep breathing technique above. Feel your body being pulled down, and allow gravity to relax your muscles.
If this doesn’t work for you, then you can try first tensing your toes, then relaxing them. Next, move to your calves, and tense them and relax. Do this for all your muscles moving up to your face, you should start to feel yourself unwinding a little after this.
Don’t let panic attacks beat you!
Panic attacks do not mean you are broken, they just mean that your body and mind is Hypervigilant! Everyone’s body is designed to feel anxiety and fear. Without it, humans would have been eaten by lions long ago! Just realise that you can overcome anxiety and panic attacks with some effort. Move away from living in fear of experiencing a panic attack, work on your breathing and relaxation techniques everyday, and go live you life!
Some other great resources for anxiety and panic attacks
- PsychCentral – Dealing with Panic attacks
- Beyond Blue – Panic disorder
- Anxiety Panic Hub
- Better Health Channel – Panic Attacks
- Anxiety Forum