A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening with people often reporting that they think they‘re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying. Approximately 5 per cent of people in Australia will experience panic disorder in their lifetime, with 2.6 per cent experiencing panic disorder over a 12-month period. It is estimated that slightly more women than men have panic disorder, which usually begins when people are in their early to mid-20s or in mid-life.

Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes. But those that‘ve had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

So why do people have Panic Attacks? No one knows for sure why people get panic attacks, but genetics, major stress, temperament that is more sensitive to stress or prone to negative emotions, certain changes in the way parts of your brain function are factors that are considered to play a role.

To help understand the early signs of Panic Attack, I want to talk about anxiety and fear from a neurological point of view. Anxiety is part of being human. Everyone experiences it. We describe anxiety as feeling nervous, worried, uneasy, panicky, and fearful about what might happen. Anxiety is related to fear. Fear is a natural response to something that is, or seems to be, a threat to our physical safety. To keep us safe, our bodies and brains are designed to respond with fear to physical threats. For example, if a grizzly bear came after you, your body would react instinctively. Your amygdala and midbrain kick in to help you to deal with the situation. Your heart rate and breathing would speed up, you start sweating, get chills, trembling, weakness or dizziness, tingly or numb hands, stomach pain, and nausea as your body prepared for a life-threatening situation.

When we experience anxiety, our body responds to stresses that are not life-threatening as if they are physical threats. When you get worried at having to sit a driving test, your fear structure kicks in. When the boss calls you into the office for a chat, your fear structure kicks in. When you watch a horror movie, your fear structure kicks in. In all of these situations, you are not physically in danger, however, our body responds to these non-life-threatening situations as if they are physical threats.

Research suggests that during a panic attack, this natural fight-or-flight response to danger becomes triggered. In the moments of a panic attack the amygdala and midbrain may become hyperactive and cause confusion about what is a real threat and what is not. This results in a rush of negative symptoms. Panic attacks typically begin suddenly and can strike at any time — when you’re driving a car, at the mall, sound asleep or in the middle of a business meeting. They reach a peak within about 10 minutes and usually last for up to half an hour, leaving you feeling tired or exhausted. 

So what are the early signs of having a panic attack? Unfortunately, they can hit with little warning, however, there can be signs. Firstly, increased stressed; whether it’s due to a specific situation, eg, giving a presentation, or a global feeling of being more stressed, eg, work, financial and relationship pressures. Increased stress heightens your fight/flight response. Secondly, noticing a sudden change/spike in your body’s fight/flight responses, ie, your heart begins to beat faster, trembling, rapid breathing, muscle tension, sweaty palms, nausea. Thirdly, panic attacks are often self-perpetuating. A person who has experienced a panic attack may become distressed for fear of having another panic attack, which, in turn, may actually bring on another panic attack.

It is important to remember that for the most part, a panic attack in isolation is not physically dangerous – but it can feel like it to the person going through it. Panic attacks are treatable and there are things you can do when you have a panic attack to reduce the severity and duration of an attack.

So, if you or anyone you know experience panic attacks, there is help available to assist you in dealing with this issue. Contact us at Prosper Health Collective for help. 

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