Practical Advice - Coping with Panic Attacks
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a severe form of anxiety. Such attacks are very frightening and are usually unpredictable, often coming unexpectedly and with very few warning symptoms. The person experiencing them generally feels overwhelmed, out of control and with the dread that they are going mad, or about to die, or both. Panic attacks are often correctly described as being a normal response at an inappropriate time. For instance, if a ferocious tiger was prowling in your garden, it would be a normal response to feel overwhelmed by dread and panic, to feel your heart pounding and your mouth go dry. To experience these symptoms when entering a supermarket however, is a response inappropriate to the everyday situation.
People who experience panic attacks are sometimes surprised and often relieved to be told that they are much more common than they had once thought. Many people experience panic attacks at some time in their lives and a large number of these find ways of copying with them and eventually eliminating them from their lives altogether.
What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
- very rapid breathing or feeling that you cannot breath
- very rapid heartbeat
- chest pains
- excessive sweating
- feeling dizzy or that you are about to faint
- feeling sick
- ringing in the ears
- unusual tingling or numbness in hands and feet
- feeling of terror - that you are about to go mad or die
- feelings of unreality. These are hard to define but can be best described as a sensation of detachment from your body and from your surroundings.
Not all of these symptoms are felt by everybody who has a panic attack, but several will be present.
How long does a Panic Attack Last?
Most attacks last between five and twenty minutes and can depend upon the coping skills which the person has developed to recognise and deal with them. Some attacks can be longer if the level of anxiety is particularly high or if the person has not yet learnt relaxing skills to lesson the symptoms.
Why do I get them?
Many people experience their first panic attack during or after a stressful period in their lives. Because adrenaline levels are naturally high at such times, it is possible for the feelings of anxiety to be prolonged and stress to become a habit. Once a person has experienced their first panic attack, they live in such fear of it happening again, that this fear in itself is enough to trigger the next attack.
Every small symptom which reminds them of the original attack e.g. sweaty hands or a dry mouth, can cause them to believe that they are about to experience another attack. Fear then takes over and precipitates an attack which is unlikely to have happened in the first place. This cycle of fear can then be difficult to break.
Some people can be pre-disposed to panic attacks because of their childhood influences and the way they were brought up. Growing up with an anxious parent or parents can cause the child to feel that the world is a frightening place. Difficult and disruptive experiences in childhood can have a similar effect.
Personality traits can also play a part here. People who are “natural worriers” and who are very self-critical, are more likely to be prone to panic attacks.
How can I help Myself?
* Remind yourself that you can have control of your bodily
reactions (see below for breathing techniques.)
* Remind yourself that a panic attack will end.
* Learn and repeat to yourself a “script” e.g. “this panic attack will not last, it will end soon and it will not harm me.”
* Remember any previous situation when you brought yourself out of an impending attack and what helped you.
* Focus on the things around you and observe their shape, colour, how they feel etc. Listen to the sounds around you e.g. the birds singing outside. In these ways you direct attention away from your own body and what is happening to it.
* Visualise a relaxing scene. This varies from person to person, but popular scenarios are deserted tropical beaches or green meadows on a sunny day. It is hard to imagine such scenes when you are feeling panicky, but practice makes it become more automatic.
* Try to develop diversionary tactics. Other sufferers have found the following helpful in fending off attacks: playing with a child or a pet, turning on the television or radio, phoning a friend or relative, doing something which involves concentration such as a crossword or card game. All of these tactics “normalise” your situation and focus your mind on something other than your bodily reactions.
* Get angry! Shout at the panic attack and tell it to go away. Be determined not to let fear overwhelm you.
* Finally, if all these procedures fail, keep telling yourself that this panic attack will not harm you despite its unpleasantness. Try and imagine it as a roaring lion without any teeth!
Breathing and Relaxation
Learning a relaxation technique and becoming so familiar with it that it becomes automatic is a very useful tool in the fight against panic attacks.
There are many books on the market that can help you with this (or the University Counsellors can help you. See our green information card entitled Coping with Exam Stress which contains two useful exercises). Most relaxation techniques involve deliberately relaxing each muscle group in turn. Such exercises take practice but are well worth the effort.
As breathing too fast and too shallowly is a common reaction to stress, it is important to develop better ways of breathing. Become aware of your breathing and practise taking slow and deep breaths from your diaphragm. Then when a panic attack threatens to strike, put this practice into action.
Other Sources of Help
The University Counsellors are used to seeing people who are prone to panic attacks. Talking through your anxieties can help you to overcome them.
Talk to your GP if you feel that your anxiety symptoms are becoming difficult to control. Sometimes a combination of medication and counselling can be most effective.
Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edward Bourne (available from College Library)
Coping Successfully with Panic Attacks by Shirley Trickett (Sheldon Press)
If we cannot take your call personally, please leave a contact number and we will call you as soon as possible. Alternatively, written messages may be left in the student counsellors' letterbox, by the student pigeonholes at the Canterbury Campus.