Mental health: panic attacks
Panic attacks occur when the body
reacts as if it is in immense danger in a situation where most
people would not be afraid.
These can develop into a panic disorder, where the attacks
are intense and frequent. If untreated, a panic disorder can be a
debilitating condition, which severely restricts quality of
Panic attacks can occur at any time, repeatedly and without
warning. Mostly they last for a few minutes, but on occasion
may last for an hour or more. In between attacks the sufferer often
feels intense anxiety, worrying when and where the next one will
Symptoms of a panic
The symptoms of a panic attack include high, anxiety,
heart palpitations, hyperventilation, muscle pain, dizziness and
sweating. There is often a fear of losing total loss of control or
These physical symptoms are just extreme versions of our body's
normal responses to danger. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat
faster, and the breathing rate to increase in order to supply major
muscles with more oxygen.
Blood is diverted away from non-essential areas including the
stomach, brain and hands, often causing digestive problems,
dizziness and tingling or numbness in the hands. Pupils dilate for
more acute vision and this can cause difficulty with bright lights
or distortion of vision. Sometimes it may appear that the walls are
folding in, or inanimate objects may even appear to move.
It is common to think the symptoms are due to a major health
problem such as a heart attack, brain tumour or mental illness.
This fear causes more adrenaline to be released and can lead to a
Panic attacks & associated
Panic attacks can be accompanied by other conditions such as
depression, or they can give rise to the development of phobias.
For example, a panic attack in the supermarket or an elevator can
lead to avoiding those situations due to linking the anxiety with
them, so they are avoided in future. Some people's lives become
very restricted in this way.
Panic attacks can develop into an anxiety disorder such as
obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) where repetitive activities are
used to prevent anxiety from occurring.
Treatment for panic
There are various treatments for panic attacks with research
showing cognitive behavioural therapy to usually be the most
effective. It is common to combine several treatment options.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) shows a
person how to identify their anxiety and then change
anxiety-generating thoughts. The premise is it is not the events
that cause anxiety, but more what we think about them.
Medication such as
anti-anxiety drugs can provide short-term relief but can also have
side effects. It is important that other strategies are used as
well, including counselling and learning more about the
Complementary therapies such as
the use of herbs, vitamins and homeopathy can be effective for some
Diet and exercise are essential for
emotional wellbeing. Exercise often stops the "keyed up" feelings
associated with anxiety. Caffeine in coffee, tea and chocolate can
increase panic attacks for some people.
Relaxation techniques and meditation can be
useful to reduce stress or provide relief during an
Don't fight panic!
When experiencing a panic attack remember the following:
- Remember the symptoms are just an exaggeration of normal
- The feelings are frightening but not dangerous
- Face the symptoms, don't run from them
- Don't make things worse with scary thoughts about where it
- Allow time to pass and for the fear to fade away
Or use one or all of the following positive statements:
- "This feeling isn't comfortable or pleasant, but I can accept
- "I can be anxious and still deal with the situation"
- "I'll just let my body do its thing - this will pass"
- "This anxiety won't hurt me, even if it doesn't feel