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Panic attacks are intense and often overwhelming periods of anxiety. Panic attacks can 'come out of nowhere' or can occur when we're faced with things that we fear (e.g. heights, social situations, driving after a car accident, etc.). Before we look at ways to manage panic attacks, let's take a closer look at the most common symptoms of panic attacks.
Most people reported a range of these symptoms during a panic attack:
Panic attacks can be scary and many people present to the Emergency Department of hospitals due to their intense symptoms. They are often convinced that there is something physically wrong with them.
Following are some helpful tips to help you manage your panic symptoms.
1. Slow down your breathing
During panic attacks people often think that they are not getting enough oxygen. So, they tend to breath as deeply and quickly as they can. Chances are, rather than not getting enough oxygen, you may be over breathing or hyperventilating. When this happens, the oxygen levels in our blood actually rises, while carbon dioxide levels fall, and we then experience a range of hyperventilation symptoms that can make us panic even more. Hyperventilating can induce dizziness, numbness and tingling in your fingers, hands, and extremities, altered vision, light headedness, and chest tightness and pain. As you can imagine, this feeds into the panic cycle leaving the panicking person thinking that these symptoms are more proof that there is somethings terribly wrong.
To combat this, hold your breath for 5-10 seconds, then slowly and steadily exhale as slowly as you can for 3-10 seconds and the inhale as slowly and steadily as you can for a further 3-10 seconds. Now keep this up for 2 minutes. The goal is to slow breathing down, which reduces the effects of hyperventilation, and reduces panic symptoms.
2. Watch your thoughts
Our thoughts have an incredibly strong effect on the way we feel. So much so, that whenever we're feeling strong emotions, it close to guaranteed that there are strong thoughts happening in the background. We can be more or less aware of these thoughts. Some people know quite well what's running through their mind from moment to moment, while others have less awareness of their thinking patterns. Below are some common thoughts that occur during a panic attack;
"I'm having a heart attack"
"I'm going crazy"
"I'm losing control"
"I'm going to die"
Here are some more useful, realistic, and anxiety-reducing thoughts to try instead:
"Although it feels unpleasant, anxiety can't harm me"
"I've felt anxiety before, and I haven't had a heart attack yet"
"I've felt anxiety before, and I haven't gone crazy"
"Anxiety is natural and normal"
"Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time"
3. Increase your awareness of places you might be avoiding
When we have panic attacks in certain places, we can start to avoid those places. Lets say I've had a panic attack at my local shopping centre. Returning to that shopping centre may become very difficult because my anxiety gets triggered when I approach the place where my panic symptoms occurred. This happens through a process of conditioning. Although it feels uncomfortable to go back to the shopping centre, there is actually nothing dangerous or troublesome about the shopping centre. Confronting any avoided or anxiety triggering places, at the right pace and in a manageable way, can help you to incrementally overcome your anxiety. If it's too challenging and overwhelming, then we might experience more intense episodes of anxiety and it might make it harder to go back next time. If it's too easy, then we're probably not growing, overcoming the anxiety, or challenging ourselves enough.
4. Talk to a professional trained in the treatment of panic attacks
Talking with your GP about your anxiety symptoms is a good place to start. This will rule out any physical health concerns that could be presenting as anxiety. Psychologists are trained in a variety of effective psychotherapy approaches to help people manage their panic attacks. Some components of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) that form the core of panic attack treatment are interoceptive exposure (exposure to the feelings of panic, to experience them as manageable, ok, and as not dangerous), cognitive therapy to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, exposure therapy to approach avoided locations, and relaxation and mindfulness training to help to control anxiety symptoms. Talking to a Clinical Psychologist can also provide you with more information about panic attacks, the symptoms of panic, and strategies to manage panic attacks so that you can better understand what's happening when panic kicks in.
CBT for the treatment of panic attacks has been extensively researched. Most people who engage in CBT for panic attacks will overcome their symptoms and will be able to resume their normal daily routine. Panic attack help is available and a panic attack psychologist can help you to get back on track and living your life to the fullest.
Dr Mark Bartholomew is a Gold Coast Clinical Psychologist. MHM Psychology is located in Coomera and we provide treatments for a range of psychological concerns including panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD, depression, and more. To find out more about our services, you can contact MHM Psychology on 1300 848 072.