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How to get a grip on panic attacks

mental health


Panic Attack

Panic Attack

Panic Attack

Picture this: you are sitting at your desk in work, or maybe you're just moments into your morning commute or enjoying a rare day off in bed, when suddenly, your heart begins to beat frantically in your chest, your breathing catches and your body begins to convulse. Paralysed with fear, you are convinced you are about to die.

These symptoms may sound like the hallmarks of a heart attack, but for hundreds and thousands of Irish people who live with acute anxiety, this is what a panic attack looks like.


Dr Harry Barry

Dr Harry Barry

Dr Harry Barry

Clinically defined as a powerful and unexplainable sense of terror that comes on without warning, a panic attack triggers severe physical reactions, despite there being no real danger or apparent cause.

While the attacks are almost twice as likely to affect women, experts estimate that more than a quarter of all people will experience a panic attack, while one in nine Irish people will experience a primary anxiety disorder during their lifetime.

So why do they arise in the first place?

Studies have shown that attacks are sometimes precipitated by highly stressful events, but panic attacks can also be brought on by alcohol or other substances, and are often associated with other mental-health problems, such as general anxiety disorder.

And much like any other mental health problem, they can happen to anyone, of any age, at any time.

Hollywood actress Emma Stone has revealed how she struggled with panic attacks in her early teens.


Singer Ellie Goulding has also spoken out about the debilitating effect panic attacks have had on her life.

Singer Ellie Goulding has also spoken out about the debilitating effect panic attacks have had on her life.

Singer Ellie Goulding has also spoken out about the debilitating effect panic attacks have had on her life.

The La La Land star said: "The first time I had a panic attack, I was sitting in my friend's house, and I thought the house was burning down. I called my mom and she brought me home, and for the next three years, it just would not stop. I would go to the nurse at lunch most days and just wring my hands. I would ask my mom to tell me exactly how the day was going to be, then ask again 30 seconds later. I just needed to know that no one was going to die and nothing was going to change."

Singer Ellie Goulding has also spoken out about the debilitating effect panic attacks have had on her life.

"One day after a shoot, I was on a train going to a funeral and my heart was pounding; I thought I was having a heart attack. I was so scared, I reached over to this woman and said, 'I think I'm dying.' I called a friend to take me to hospital, where they told me it was just a panic attack. From that day, I kept having them. It was the weirdest time of my life," she said.

"Sick, horrible things would go through my mind, but I didn't want to draw attention to myself… It got to the point when I couldn't even get into the car and go to the studio."

Cognitive behavioural therapist and author of Anxiety and Panic: How to Reshape your Anxious Mind and Brain, Dr Harry Barry, explains that: "Panic attacks are one of the most common forms of acute anxiety, yet they are also one of the most misunderstood and often poorly managed. They cause chaos in the lives of those who regularly experience them.

"Panic attacks usually occur in bursts, are unexpected and have, at first glance, no obvious cause. Somebody might be at home sitting in front of the TV without thinking about anything and the next thing, their heart is racing and their stomach is in knots. A former patient was actually watching cartoons when he experienced his first attack.

"You suddenly find that your head is pounding, you are shaking and you're breathing really fast and you have this awful sense that something dreadful is going to happen and that you are going to die. In fact, many people end up in A&E.

"A&E are continuously receiving people who think they are having a heart attack or experiencing a stroke. What they don't know is that what they are experiencing is a panic attack."


Recognising that most people are simply uninformed when it comes to the condition, Dr Barry, who is a retired GP, explains: "Most sufferers are mainly anxious and fearful about panic attacks because they lack any real understanding of what is going on in their body, mind and brain during an episode. And this ignorance leads to the problem getting bigger and bigger in their emotional minds until fear and panic are all that they can see.

"To understand a panic attack, we need to realise that the physical symptoms experienced by the person are created by an adrenaline rush. This occurs when our stress system is activated by the amygdala (a part of our brain that responds to danger), or gunslinger, firing inadvertently and seemingly without warning."

The best-selling author, who lives in Drogheda with his family, explains that the amygdala fires without thinking and floods the body with adrenaline, often without distinguishing between life-threatening events and minor stressors.

In the appropriate situation, high levels of anxiety is considered helpful and allows you to escape from danger. The problems arise when people's response is at odds to the actual danger of the situation, or when it is generated when there is no danger present.

Unfortunately, this part of our brain does not respond to regular talk therapies or logic.

For people who experience regular panic attacks, the condition is called 'panic disorder'. Around 8pc-10pc of the population will experience occasional panic attacks, but only 5pc will develop panic disorder. Panic disorder affects an estimated 150,00 people in Ireland today.

Dr Barry explains that some people are more susceptible to the condition than others.

"Research by psychologist David Barlow, an internationally recognised expert on the subject, suggests that apart from genetic predisposition, there are two psychological vulnerabilities at work. The first is a generalised vulnerability to anxiety, created during childhood. The second is a specific psychological vulnerability, where we learn as children that some situations are dangerous - even if they are not.

"Panic disorders develop when a person with these vulnerabilities experiences major stress and has a first panic attack. The latter activates the pre-existing vulnerabilities, making them more sensitive to internal and external cues associate with the episode."


While diet, exercise and meditation are useful as general anxiety or stress-reducing measures, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques that are relayed in Dr Barry's book allow people to rewire their brains and banish anxiety and panic attacks for good.

"Lots of people try to do breathing exercises in the middle of a panic attack, but that only makes them become more panicky. Some people have panic attacks for up to 10 years before they come to see me. Young people often self-harm because of them.

"I teach a flooding technique, which means that the patient has to accept the symptoms.

Imagine that you were stuck to the ground, allowing the waves of physical sensations to just wash over you and move on. If you do this, the panic symptoms will be gone in 10 minutes or less. If you try to stop them, they may last for hours.

"Some panic attacks can go on for hours, but if you let the adrenaline rush happen, it will pass more quickly. At first, this is unpleasant, but finally, the memory in the amygdala changes. You weaken it, so patients start to lose their fear of panic attacks and then they stop happening completely. It's about retraining the brain."

"I get them to do a panic exercise where I try to get them to bring on a panic attack and when they can't, they realise that I'm putting them back in charge of their bodies. It's very rewarding.

Anxiety and Panic: How to Reshape Your Anxious Mind and Brain (pictured above), by Dr Harry Barry, is published by Orion Spring, available from September 7th, €16.99