Panic attacks are abrupt surges of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes. During this time at least four of the following symptoms occur:

  1. palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  2. sweating
  3. trembling or shaking
  4. sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. feelings of choking
  6. chest pain or discomfort
  7. nausea or abdominal distress
  8. feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint
  9. chills or heat sensations
  10. numbness or tingling sensations
  11. derealisation – feeling of unreality or depersonalisation – feeling of being detached from oneself
  12. fear of losing control or ‘going crazy’
  13. fear of dying

The abrupt surge of intense fear or discomfort can occur from an anxious state or a calm state. That is why often panic attacks can appear out of the blue, with no specific trigger. After a panic attack, an individual can also return to an anxious state or a calm one.

Panic attacks are by themselves not a mental disorder, but can be associated with mental disorders, not necessarily just anxiety disorders. Their incidence can be influenced by temperament, stressful life events and smoking, and the incidence of panic attacks among females is higher than among males. In Australia, 5 per cent of the population is expected to have at least one panic attack in their lifetime.

Panic attacks are caused by perceived threats, conscious or unconscious, that leads the brain to active the fight-flight-freeze response. This leads to a surge in adrenaline. The body is preparing itself for action in response to this perceived treat. However, the part of the brain that activates this response is ancient and the perceived threat is probably not as dangerous as the brain has interpreted it to be. The fight-flight-freeze response might have helped us survive a sabre tooth tiger, but doesn’t help when we have to give a presentation at school, uni or work.

Many of the physical symptoms of panic attacks are similar to heart attacks. Not surprisingly, many people seek treatment for a heart attack when they have their first panic attack. After you have your first panic attack, it is important to see your GP to rule out any cardiac issues.

Many clients who seek psychological treatment for panic attacks hope that we will have strategies to make their panic attacks go away. If only we had such a magic wand! Psychological therapy involves strategies like:

  • strategies to help you expand your attention when panic attacks occur. Many people hyperfocus on sensations and thoughts that happen when panic attacks occur, which makes it worse
  • stopping the struggle with the panic attacks. This involves accepting and allowing that sometimes panic attacks will happen for you and to lead as full a life as possible. Sometimes people can avoid certain situations or scenarios, leading to a less fulfilling life
  • If the panic attacks are triggered by a certain situation or scenario, gradual exposure to the feared situation or scenario can reduce the autonomic arousal that triggers panic attacks

 

If you need support to help you cope with panic attacks, contact us at Prosper Health Collective, we are here to help.

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