Recognising and Managing Panic Attacks

Mental Health

Tammy George

young man having a panic attack at work

Panic attacks can rule a person’s life. Not knowing when an attack will occur or how to manage the symptoms are enough to cause further anxiety for sufferers. There are steps to recognise what can trigger an attack and how an attack can be best handled.   

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is a short period of intense anxiety accompanied by physical symptoms of fear such as a racing heart, shortness of breath, trembling and dizziness. Also known as an anxiety attack, the symptoms can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour. The physical and mental impact of the attack can be felt for hours afterwards.

What Causes a Panic Attack?

Up to 35% of the population will suffer from at least one panic attack in their life, but the causes are varied. A panic attack is linked to our ‘flight or fight’ response when a surge of adrenalin is released into our bloodstream. For many people ongoing stress or illness will be the trigger for an attack. Medications, drugs, alcohol or coffee are to blame for some while others don’t seem to have a trigger and the attack appears to occur for no reason.

Genes play a part in panic attacks so if one or more close relatives has suffered from them, you are more likely to experience an attack than someone who is not predisposed. People with an existing mental disorder such as social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder may suffer from panic attacks as a result of their condition. Panic attacks can have a devastating impact on an individual’s life if they fear the next attack and don’t want to leave home.

Signs of a panic attack

The signs that a panic attack is imminent or you’re suffering an attack can include:

  • Anxious or irrational thinking

  • Strong feelings of dread or danger

  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy

  • Tingling in arms and hands

  • Fear of losing control

  • Racing heart rate or constricted chest

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Hot flushes and sweating

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Feeling nauseous

  • Muscle tightening

  • Dry mouth

Steps you can take to manage attacks    

While the symptoms of a panic attack are anything but calm, try to maintain rational thoughts and action. Don’t run from the situation, instead tell yourself that the symptoms will pass and focus your attention on something else. Try not to reprimand or ‘talk yourself out’ of having the attack, shift your mind to outside your body. When panic attacks are caused by anxiety, people can be treated with one or more of the following:

  • Medications

  • Psychotherapy

  • Learning stress management

  • Breathing and relaxation techniques

  • Learning problem-solving skills

  • Making changes to diet or sleep

A person with recurring panic attacks may develop an anxiety disorder or agoraphobia where they feel anxious in places or situations where they may have an attack. They may not want to go into enclosed spaces where it is not easy to escape quickly or seek medical treatment. It is important to ask for help to try and reduce the attacks and their impact on everyday life.

Also, see your doctor to rule out medical conditions that have symptoms relating to panic attacks including diabetes, thyroid problems, asthma and heart conditions.

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

Category:Mental Health

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