Panic Attacks Explained
What is a panic attack?
Panic Attacks: Information & Resources
What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks are an abrupt surge of intense anxiety or discomfort, which causes the physical sensations of fear. If the panic attacks become reoccurring and disabling, this is known as panic disorder (an anxiety disorder).
Panic disorder can develop when people become stuck in the “fear-of-fear” cycle and catastrophize physical sensations. It makes you tend to avoid situations that may produce changes in physical sensations (e.g. caffeine, exercise, walking upstairs) as it reminds them of the unpleasantness of panic attacks.
How common are panic attacks?
Panic attacks are surprisingly common! Around 40% of Australians have a panic attack once or twice in their lives. However, only around 5% of Australians will experience panic disorder. Panic disorder can develop at any age and affect anyone, but it is rare in older adults and children.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Panic attacks usually last for up to half an hour, with the worst symptoms in the first 10 minutes. Afterwards, you may feel very tired. As mentioned, a panic attack is a sudden sense of overwhelming panic, in which four or more of the following develop rapidly, and peak within minutes:
- Palpitations/pounding heart
- A sensation of shortness of breath
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Chills/Hot flushes
- Paresthesias (numbness/tingling)
- Derealisation (unreality)/Depersonalization (detached) – a sense that you or the world around you is not real
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
Symptoms of panic disorder
If you have a panic disorder, panic attacks can happen as often as several times a day. Panic attacks can even start while you’re asleep and wake you up in the middle of the night.
- Have recurring and unexpected panic attacks.
- Persistent worry for at least a month after having a panic attack that you’ll have another one or about their consequences
- Significant maladaptive change in behaviour to try to avoid panic attacks
- e.g. avoid exercise or crowded rooms without an easy exit
I feel out of control, what is happening to my body?
The fight or flight response is activated in the face of danger which is automatic changes in the body to respond to threat. This is a physiological change to prepare your body, fuelled by chemicals such as adrenaline. For example, heart rate and breathing are accelerated, and blood is shifted to the muscles to prepare for physical combat or running away from danger.
But there are also cognitive changes that happen when the fight or flight state is activated. We’re more likely to be on the lookout for danger. For example, you may think there’s no point fleeing one danger to run straight into another danger, so the brain becomes very focused on potential threats. It creates behavioural drives to get us out of dangerous situations, fight it or freeze. Our body is helpful in these situations, protecting us, especially from psychical threats as gives us a burst of energy.
However, it is not as helpful in social or day-to-day situations. A panic attack occurs when the fight or flight reaction is triggered in harmless and stress-free environments such as watching tv.
What is causing my panic attacks?
Several influences are usually involved in the cause of panic attacks or panic disorder. Some of the factors that can prime the body to inappropriately activate the ‘flight-or-fight’ response include:
- Extremely stressful life experiences – trauma such as redundancy, bereavement and any form of abuse
- Chronic stress – ongoing, unrelenting stress, causing the body to produce higher levels of stress chemicals
- Illness – some medical disorders such as asthma and irritable bowel syndrome can be associated
- Sudden change in environment – such as walking into a crowded room
- Intense physical exercise
- Excessive caffeine intake
Why it’s important to seek help?
Common things people say when have experienced a panic attack are:
“I thought I was having a medical emergency.”
“I thought I was dying.”
“I felt completely out of control.”
Panic attacks and panic disorders can be overwhelming and make everyday life harder. Living in fear can put constant stress on your body, leading to further problems. Without treatment, frequent panic attacks can be disabling and can seriously affect your social and work life, making it so important to get support.
Making an Appointment with Axis Clinic
To make an appointment with one of our experienced psychologists, counsellors or mental health social workers please contact our helpful reception team on 07 3254 0333 so that we can support you further.
Check out our self-paced short course: A Psychologist’s Guide to Managing Panic Attacks
Take back control and let go of fear! Take this short course to gain a deeper understanding of what a panic attack is, explore the physiological symptoms and create your own self management plan
5 things you can do in the moment when experiencing a panic attack.
- Breathe slowly and deeply: Possibly the most important thing to focus on when experiencing a panic attack. It may be helpful to count steadily from 1 to 5 on each in-breath and each out-breath. This helps slow your heart rate down and remind your body that you are safe (deactivating the fight or flight response).
- Tell yourself it’s not life-threatening and it will pass: Remember that what you are feeling is uncomfortable but not life-threatening. Reassure yourself that nothing bad is happening to you.
- Do not fight it and stay where you are: Fleeing from a situation will reinforce the perception that panic attacks are dangerous and unbearable. If you sit and allow these feelings to pass, you can gain the confidence that you can beat panic attacks and can cope.
- Focus on positive things outside your body: Focusing your attention on other things can help take your mind off your symptoms such as counting backwards in threes from 100, singing the words from a song or concentrating on the sights and sounds around you.
- Avoid self-talk that focuses your attention on your symptoms: Don’t tell yourself to ‘stop panicking’ or ‘just relax’ can heighten your feelings of stress. Instead, distract yourself by using the tips above
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