More people than ever are suffering from panic attacks. At least 1 in 10 of us can expect to experience one at some point in our lives, and, for 1 in 100, they can spiral into panic disorder. Genetics are partly to blame, but, with numbers continuing to rise, experts have begun to point the finger at the hazards of modern life, ranging from stress to exposure to electromagnetic fields, radio frequencies and even food additives. Learn how to recognise a panic attack, and what to do about it…
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack usually lasts for between five and twenty minutes and is characterised by a sudden, overwhelming feeling of anxiety, accompanied by at least four of the following physical symptoms:
An irregular or racing heartbeat
Shortness of breath (hyperventilation)
Feelings of disorientation or unreality
Trembling or shaky limbs
A choking sensation
Chills or hot flushes
Tinnitus (ringing ears)
These symptoms may be frightening, but are unlikely to harm you.
Panic attacks may not always have an obvious cause. They occur when the brain interprets certain psychological or environmental triggers as threats. As the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, breathing quickens in an attempt to increase oxygen intake, whilst the release of stress hormones increases heart rate and ramps up muscle tension. If you are extremely anxious, panic attacks may even wake you in the night as your brain interprets small changes in the body as signs of danger.
Panic attacks may spiral into panic disorder as part of a vicious cycle: misinterpreting your panic attacks, for example as a sign that you are going to have a heart attack, may cause you to fear and dread the onset of an attack, manifesting in increased anxiety levels and recurrent attacks.
What should I do if I have a panic attack?
“Ride out the attack,” advises professor of clinical psychology Paul Salkovskis. “Try to keep doing things. If possible, don’t leave the situation until the anxiety has subsided. If you don’t run away from it, you’re giving yourself a chance to discover that nothing’s going to happen.”
Reassure yourself that the symptoms you are experiencing are normal, harmless, and will pass.
Try to take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Some people find it helpful to close their eyes, counting to five with each in- and out-breath.
When should I seek help?
See your doctor if:
You have practised breathing slowly and deeply for twenty minutes, but the attack persists.
You still feel unwell or have a rapid or irregular heartbeat or chest pains once your breathing has returned to normal.
You experience regular panic attacks.
You can also contact the No Panic helpline on 0844 967 4848 between 10am and 10pm.
How can I prevent panic attacks?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help you to identify and modify the negative thought patterns which feed recurrent attacks. Ask your GP to refer you.
Quitting smoking and cutting caffeine, alcohol and artificial sweeteners from your diet may help. It’s also important to maintain stable blood sugar levels by eating regular meals, and to ensure your diet includes an adequate intake of magnesium, vitamin D and omega 3.
Crucially, ensure you take steps to minimise and manage your stress levels. Regular exercise, mindfulness meditation and daily deep breathing exercises may all help.