Even though they are extremely common, panic attacks appear to be on the same taboo list as depression, mental health problems or feelings of sadness. They still carry that stigma that it is a sign of weakness to admit to having them.
This is a pity because if we did talk about panic, we would realise just how pervasive this phenomenon is. I wrote earlier in the week about the fight or flight response to situations in which we feel threatened. Panic attacks are stronger stress responses to threatening situations.
Firstly, it is important to understand that a panic attack is very real. It can be a terrifying experience because we do not know what is causing it or when and where it could occur again.
Even though it is not dangerous in the vast majority of cases, we can often feel we are having a heart attack, going to faint or that we are going mad.
Fear pervades our minds and there can be a sense of losing control, or of foreboding that something awful is going to happen.
Physical symptoms such as palpitations are quite common, as are feelings of dizziness or disorientation or the urge to get to a toilet.
The result is that we may start to avoid certain places, stop some of our activities or become very fidgety or anxious for much of the time. If this has ever happened to you, then join the millions of others who have had similar experiences.
The next thing to understand is exactly what is happening in a panic attack. In general, it is best for our bodies to have a balance between oxygen, which is breathed in, and carbon dioxide, which is expelled from the body.
When stressed, we have a tendency to hyperventilate, causing an imbalance between our oxygen and carbon dioxide: too much oxygen in, too little carbon dioxide out.
This results in symptoms such as confusion, faintness or breathlessness. But it is not these symptoms that lead to the panic attack – it is our interpretation of the symptoms that does the most damage.
Thoughts such as "I am going to lose control", "I am about to faint" or "I am having a heart attack" cause our breathing to become more rapid and that leads on to a full-blown panic attack.
So what can you do to control a panic attack? Try the following to make a significant impact:
Understand what causes panic attacks – a physical response to feelings of stress.
Develop a soothing mantra to counter negative self-assessment. "I am in control" or "This will pass" are some simple examples.
Breathe slowly. Breathe in (through the nose) for four seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out (through the mouth) for eight seconds.
Do three of these breaths to get you over the initial experience of a panic attack.
Repeat this breathing cycle regularly throughout the day.
Reduce or eliminate caffeine. It is a stimulant and, combined with high stress, is a recipe for a panic attack. Drink lots of water instead.
Avoid alcohol as it is a depressant.
Challenge negative thoughts about why these panic attacks are happening. You are not losing your mind and they are not dangerous.
Exercise to combat the stress symptoms that cause panic attacks.
Talk to your GP if you are distressed by panic attacks.
Practice mindfulness to develop the capacity to still both mind and body.
Use your experience of panic attacks as a prompt to make some simple but positive lifestyle changes.
As part of Mind Yourself week. drmarkharrold.com