A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions. Attacks can be unexpected and very frightening, perhaps more so because they can come on when there is no actual threat or apparent cause. Panic attacks typically peak within ten minutes of initial onset, and usually last between 20 and 30 minutes, although they can also be much shorter in duration.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, 13% of people in the UK have experienced a panic attack at some point so in reality, they’re more common than you might think. Some people have one or two panic attacks in their lifetime, sometimes during periods of enormous stress. When someone has recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spends much of their time in constant fear of another attack, they may have a condition called panic disorder.
Panic attacks can happen at any age, though it’s not uncommon for them to start in the teen years or early adulthood. While they appear to affect women more frequently than men, there is no data available to show the exact gender split.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Some people might experience them on the rare occasion while others may have an attack a few times a week. Panic attacks typically include some of these signs or symptoms:
- Sudden sense of impending doom or danger for no identifiable reason
- Rapid heart rate
- Tightness in the throat or chest
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating or chills
- Abdominal cramps
- Dizziness, light-headedness or feeling like you might faint
- Numbness or tingling sensation in the extremities
- A feeling of unreality or detachment
- Intense fear
- An inability to focus on anything other than the panic.
Some people feel like they might die during the panic attack despite the fact that the attacks aren’t fatal. Once a panic attack is over, it’s not uncommon for someone to feel fatigued, shaky and very tired for a few hours.
Who is at risk of a panic attack?
We’re not sure as to why some people experience panic attacks and other don’t, but they’re not a sign of weakness – they can happen to anyone, at any time. It’s believed that some risk factors may include:
- A family history of panic attacks, panic disorder or anxiety
- Major stress such as bereavement, a relationship breakdown, serious financial worries or work stress
- A traumatic experience
- Substance misuse
- Excessive caffeine or sugar intake
- Certain changes in the way parts of your brain function. For example, some types of brain injury can cause people to have panic attacks.
This is not to say that people with any of the above will inevitably experience panic attacks, but they may be at higher risk.
How to self-soothe during and after a panic attack
During a panic attack:
- Remember that panic attacks are not fatal. Although deeply distressing, you won’t die and the event will pass. Repeat this thought to yourself as often as you need to during an attack.
- Contrary to popular belief, do not use a paper bag while having a panic attack. This will only cause you to breathe in carbon dioxide which will cause you to feel dizzy and unwell. It’s best not to use anything to breathe into, but instead, focus on controlling your breath.
- As soon as you feel a panic attack coming on, try and get to a private space if at all possible. If you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road as safely as you can.
- Focus on your breathing. It can help to concentrate on breathing slowly in and out while counting up to five. If you find your mind wandering back to your panic symptoms, do your best to refocus.
- Focus on your senses. For example, suck on a strongly flavoured sweet or chew gum (if you’re not hyperventilating), or touch something close by and really concentrate on the texture, temperature and feel of the object. Some people also find holding an ice cube while having an attack can help to distract them. If you experience panic attacks, it’s always a good idea to carry mints or gum with you.
- Try grounding techniques which can help you to feel more in control during an attack. They’re especially useful if you feel removed from reality during a panic attack:
- Stamp your feet in one place
- Put your hands in cold water
- Hold a piece of ice in your hand and focus on the sensation
- Breathe in a scent such as an essential oil or perfume
- Move your body
- Take one of your hands in the other and squeeze rhythmically and gently.
After a panic attack
- You may feel exhausted or confused after a panic attack. This is completely normal. If you can, try and sit down in a quiet space, and pay attention to what your body is telling you. For example, you might need to eat or drink something, or have a lie down.
- If you feel able, tell someone you’ve had a panic attack. Chances are, the person you tell has either experienced one themselves or they know someone who has. It can also be helpful to mention how they might notice if you’re having another one, and how you’d like them to help you.
Reducing the chances of further panic attacks
Although it’s not 100% possible to avoid panic attacks completely, self-management techniques can reduce the risk of having further episodes. From a physical point of view, getting regular, quality sleep, eating a balanced diet, avoiding high doses of caffeine and sugar, and ensuring that you get enough exercise can all help you to stay well.
From an emotional wellbeing point of view, practising stress-management techniques such as mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation or yoga can help you to stay on top of things, as can talking through any stress you’re under with a friend, family member or professional.
When to see your GP
It’s important to speak to your GP about your panic attacks, especially if you are experiencing them more frequently, or if you’re starting to avoid certain situations for fear of having another. Your GP will ask you about your health history. Some physical health conditions such as those related to the heart or respiratory system can mimic panic attack symptoms as can very low blood pressure. Your GP may also ask about your diet, sleep and any substances you use. If left untreated, panic attacks can have a significant impact on almost every area of your life including:
- The development of specific phobias, such as fear of driving or leaving your house
- Avoidance of social situations for fear of having another attack
- Depression, anxiety disorders or another mental health problem
- Alcohol or other substance misuse
- Low self-esteem.
If you’re having repeated panic attacks at unpredictable times and there doesn’t appear to be a particular trigger, pattern or cause, your GP may determine that you have a mental health condition known as panic disorder.
How to help someone else if they’re having a panic attack
In the first instance, it’s really important to ensure that the person isn’t having a problem related to their physical health such as an asthma attack. Gently ask the person if they know what’s happening – chances are, it’s not their first panic attack so they should be able to confirm what’s occurring. If in any doubt, call 999.
- Stay with the person and keep yourself calm.
- Avoid unnecessary chatter – this can feel overwhelming for someone having a panic attack so keep sentences short and simple.
- Ask the person if they take medicine during a panic attack – if so, get it for them along with a glass of water.
- Ask the person what will make them feel more comfortable while the panic subsides such as no talking, something to hold on to or a piece of gum. Don’t make assumptions about what they need.
- Ask anyone witnessing the attack to leave – assure them that everything is under control.
- Ask the person to count to ten slowly with you to slow their breathing.
- Reassure the person that they’re not in danger and that the attack will pass.
- Once the attack is over, ask them if they need anything such as a drink or some food, or some peace and quiet.
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