As part of my Complex PTSD and Trauma, I suffer from crippling bouts of anxiety which lead to panic attacks. Perhaps one of the worst parts of panic attacks is the uncertainty of their appearance. They can occur at any time — even in your sleep. The fear-inducing experience peaks around 10 minutes, but the exhausting physical symptoms can extend far beyond that.
It is so hard to explain a panic attack to someone who hasn’t had one. How do you explain that at that very moment you really believe you are about to die, really about to die and nothing can save you. All of a sudden, everything around you is looking at you, feeling you, sucking the air out of you, pulling the ground from beneath you. The first time I thought I was having a stroke, my face went numb after [the feeling of] pins and needles. It feels like I need to escape, get out and run because if I don’t, I might die. That’s not a good situation to be in when in company or if you in a shopping centre or just about to pay the cashier. That’s how quickly they can come on. They don’t always need a trigger. Of course, triggers don’t help but at times they spontaneously happen and you are out of control and next thing you know you’re in the midst of a full blown panic attack, sobbing, shaking, throwing up right there and then unable to do anything about it.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is an intense rush of fear or anxiety that causes a person to feel like they’re in imminent danger when no danger is present. It can last from a few minutes to half an hour; however, the physical and emotional effects of the attack can last much longer.
Symptoms may include:
- racing heart
- shortness of breath or feelings of choking
- feeling numb or tingling sensations
- fear of going crazy
- fear of dying
- queasy stomach
- feeling detached from oneself.
Panic attacks are often made worse when a person doesn’t realise that their symptoms are due to anxiety. Someone having a panic attack gets caught in a vicious cycle: they become more and more anxious and their symptoms get worse and worse.
What is panic disorder?
Experiencing a panic attack doesn’t necessarily mean you have panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterised by repeated and unexpected panic attacks that severely disrupt your life. Suffering from a panic disorder may involve worrying about future panic attacks and changing your behaviour as a result, such as avoiding places or situations where panic attacks have previously occurred.
Panic disorder is the term used to describe when panic attacks are recurrent and disabling. Panic disorder can be characterised by:
The presence of recurring and unexpected (‘out of the blue’) panic attacks.
Worrying for at least a month after having a panic attack that you will have another one.
Worrying about the implications or consequences of a panic attack (such as thinking that the panic attack is a sign of an undiagnosed medical problem). For example, some people have repeated medical tests due to these worries and, despite reassurance, still, have fears of being unwell.
Significant changes in behaviour that relate to the panic attacks (such as avoiding activities like exercise because it increases the heart rate).
During a panic attack, you’re suddenly overwhelmed by the physical sensations described above. Panic attacks reach a peak within about 10 minutes and usually last for up to half an hour, leaving you feeling tired or exhausted. They can occur several times a day or may happen only once every few years. They can even occur while people are asleep, waking them up during the attack. Many people experience a panic attack once or twice in their lives; this is common and is not panic disorder.
But there are things you can learn to do to minimise them and learn to recognise their onset.
IF YOU’RE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK
Don’t fight your feelings – the intense anxiety you are feeling is likely to be out of proportion to any danger you are actually facing. The attack will pass in a few minutes.
Relax – use breathing control (counting slowly/slow breathing) and relaxation techniques (meditation) at the first sign of an attack.
Challenge your fear – be aware of what you’re thinking and question yourself about your symptoms, what you know from past attacks and what you would tell someone experiencing the same symptoms.
Give yourself time – Don’t distract yourself or ignore your feelings. Acknowledge what you’re feeling as “just symptoms” that will pass.
Don’t avoid activities/situations – don’t let your panic prevent you from activities you enjoy. Ease yourself into these activities if you start fearing/avoiding them.
Avoid self-medicating – some medication can be addictive. Get appropriate medical advice before taking any medication.
Get help – talk to a friend, family member or a helpline like Lifeline (13 11 14 Australia). Visit your GP who can help identify the best treatment for you. If the panic attacks recur, and cause you distress, professional help is warranted. Seek a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Panic attacks are very treatable.
WHERE TO GET HELP
Visit your GP to rule our physical symptoms and for treatment options
Call Lifeline (13 11 14) or chat to us online if in Australia. In your own Country find equivalent. They do exist.
Visit specialist panic disorder clinics through local hospitals and universities
Check out information and resources online. There are some very good online anxiety online anxiety services available free on the internet.