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Panic attacks – what are they and what can help?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Panic attacks are quite common, with around 1 in 10 people experiencing them. They can be a scary experience. Here at Healthwords, we believe that knowledge is power, so understanding more about these panic attacks and how to tackle them can hopefully help. We’ll explain when to see your doctor and what treatment paths are available.

What happens during a panic attack?

Panic attacks are sudden extreme episodes of anxiety that can happen out of the blue with no clear trigger. During a panic attack, your body has gone into "fight or flight" mode, where adrenaline is released into your bloodstream. This causes physical changes where your heart starts racing, and you’re breathing fast (hyperventilating).

This can cascade into feeling dizzy, sick, short of breath, and even sensations like pins and needles. You might be sweaty and shaky, and you may get a heaviness or tightness in your chest. Most frightening of all, you may feel you’re going to die. But these are physical symptoms to say that your mind is in distress – panic attacks are not life-threatening even when they feel like it, and it’s important to try to break the cascade before it gets to this awful crescendo of feelings.

Practical tips during an attack

In general, panic attacks typically last for approximately 20 minutes. However, specific strategies can aid in preventing or alleviating an attack. Primarily, try to regulate your breathing – this serves as a focal point or diversion, facilitating a calmer state of mind. Additionally, controlled breathing ensures adequate oxygen supply to the brain and tissues while expelling carbon dioxide, thus maintaining a balanced respiratory system and mitigating the escalation of other symptoms.

Though breathing techniques may appear simplistic, their execution can be challenging, particularly during a panic episode. Consistent practice is key – initiate practice sessions during periods of calm and gradually incorporate them when sensing the onset of a panic attack. Improvement comes with persistence over time.

Numerous breathing methods are available, but let's discuss one: concentrate on your breath, inhaling slowly while counting to 3, then exhaling slowly while repeating the count. Assess your breath depth by placing your hand on your abdomen and aiming to elevate it steadily as you inhale deeply, filling your lungs entirely, as opposed to shallow breathing that involves only the ribs.

Alternatively, your local pharmacy may offer natural or herbal remedies to aid in calming during an attack.

When should I see my doctor?

Treatment options are available for individuals grappling with panic disorder. Educating oneself about panic attacks can aid in diminishing the fear surrounding them, while cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) targets breaking the negative cycle that culminates in a panic attack. Certain medications, such as those designed to regulate heart rate and prevent escalation, or specific antidepressants, may also offer relief.

Your primary point of contact should be your doctor, who can offer attentive listening, support, and guidance on the most suitable course of action, including these therapeutic approaches.

Panic attacks may coincide with other mental health conditions, such as severe anxiety or depression. If these challenges impact your daily life, don't hesitate to discuss them with your doctor.

In moments of crisis, characterized by suicidal ideation or thoughts of self-harm, seek urgent assistance by contacting your doctor for an immediate appointment or, outside regular hours, dialing 911 or visiting the Emergency Department.

Occasionally, healthcare professionals may consider alternative causes for your symptoms. If your chief complaints include chest pain, difficulty breathing, and sweating, and you belong to a high-risk group due to factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, previous heart issues, age over 65, smoking, or obesity, it is prudent to seek immediate medical attention. Call 911 or proceed directly to the Emergency Department if experiencing chest pain.

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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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