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Don't panic! You can avoid attacks

The news that DJ Carey's feared heart attack was, in fact, a panic attack will have struck a chord with tens of thousands of people.

Panic attacks are common in this age of anxiety and it is not at all unusual for a person who is having their first panic attack to think that they are having a heart attack.

Nor is it unusual for people who think this to get themselves to a hospital emergency department where they eventually find out what is really the matter.

In the vast majority of cases, though, only the person who is having a panic attack actually knows it is happening.

If you have never had a panic attack, you can be quite sure that someone in your company whether on the street, and public transport or even at a party has had one without you knowing.

How do panic attacks happen?

In your brain, you have a tiny but vital structure called the amygdala.

This is the alarm system that helps you survive. If you're in danger, the amygdala will tell you to get out as fast as you can or else to fight for your life, the "fight or flight" response.

It is thought that in a panic attack, the amygdala somehow makes a mistake.

It thinks that you are in mortal danger when you are not and it triggers that fight or flight response -- pulse racing, high anxiety, palpitations.

It is rather like a house alarm that has become over-sensitive. It doesn't mean you're going mad, nor is it going to harm you physically.

Panic attacks come in many forms. Some mimic symptoms of a heart attack. Others involve feeling faint, sweating, terror or a feeling that you're about to get sick.

Here are some tips for dealing with panic attacks if you're ever unfortunate enough to have this problem:

1 Be willing to have the panic attack -- don't avoid a situation or location just because you've had a panic attack there before. If you do, you may find that your freedom is reduced until you have little left. If you've had a panic attack walking up Grafton Street you may avoid doing so again and that is understandable. But you may also avoid going into the city centre. Then perhaps you will have your next panic attack in a shopping centre and afterwards avoid shopping centres. You see the pattern. So be determined to go about doing what you want to do. If a panic attack begins, realise that it will probably peak in about ten minutes.

2 Breathe normally when you're having a panic attack. If you breathe in a very panicky way you can disrupt the balance between the intake of oxygen and the output of carbon dioxide in your body and this in itself can throw your system into a panic.

3Look at the sources of anxiety and stress in your life and try to reduce them. It stands to reason that the more stressed you are, the greater your chances of panicking. In my experience as a counsellor, people who deal with the sources of stress in their lives have fewer panic attacks.

4If reducing the sources of stress is not possible -- and DJ Carey is not the only person, as we all know nowadays, for whom it's difficult -- then develop ways of calming yourself within that situation. For instance, you might look up mindfulness techniques on the internet. You might also practice relaxing physically at intervals.

5Hit the gym or try a brisk walk, run swim. In fact, exercise generally has been shown to be very beneficial to our mental health but totally undervalued.

Use these strategies and panic attacks, while unpleasant and a nuisance, will not rule your life.

Padraig O'Morain is accredited as a counsellor by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy