Everyone knows what panic is, and it is common to feel panicky from time to time:
- Sense that you are being followed on your way home from a party, late at night.
- You discover you have had your wallet stolen.
- You are sitting an exam. You look at the paper and realise you don’t know the answers to any of the questions.
It would be normal in any of these situations to feel a sense of panic. The feeling would be understandable and would pass fairly quickly. A panic attack is a bit like ‘normal’ panic, but different in a number of ways:
- The feelings are a lot stronger.
- The feelings seem to come ‘out of the blue’ and are not usually related to the sort of frightening situation described above.
- The feelings often last longer than a few minutes As the feelings are unexpected, strong and often very physical, they can feel extremely frightening.
Panic attacks affect people in many different ways, but there is usually a sudden frightening feeling that something really awful is about to happen, with strong physical symptoms.
This can cause people to feel that something more serious, such as a heart attack is happening.
Courses we provide that can help you
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Calming Anxiety and Boosting Mood (CABM)
The course is a psychological educational course run within a group setting. If you are aged 16 or older and registered with a Worcestershire GP, you can self-refer to attend a course. The CABM course is designed to help you understand and recognise low mood, anxiety and panic and help you learn skills and techniques to combat it. Click here to read more
How can I help myself?
How do I know I’m having a panic attack?
Sometimes panic feels so awful, and comes so “out of the blue”, that people can’t quite believe that it’s only a panic attack, and not something more serious. The feeling of a panic attack can be so unusual that you may not even realise this is what is happening.
One of the most important first steps in overcoming panic attacks is recognising whether or not your symptoms are caused by a panic attack. Panic affects your body, your mind and the way you behave. The following are some of the most common symptoms experienced by people having a panic attack. Some people have all of the symptoms, others just a few.
- Heart pounding, beating fast or skipping a beat.
- Heart seeming to stop, followed by a big thud.
- Chest pains.
- Changes in breathing; for example: gulping air; breathing fast; feeling short of breath; sighing, yawning or panting.
- Pounding in the head.
- Numbness or tingling in fingers, toes or lips.
- Feeling faint, wobbly legs
Frightening feelings such as:
- Feelings of utter terror.
- Feelings of unreality, as though you are not really there.
- Feeling anxious in situations where panic has happened before.
What to do
Avoid - situations that have caused panic or that you fear might cause panic, for example going shopping.
Escape - as soon as you can when panicking, for example, rushing round the supermarket to get out as soon as possible.
Prevent - what you think is going to happen, by doing something to make yourself safe, for example, gulping air if you think you are going to suffocate or sitting down if you think you are going to faint, or lying down if you think you are having a heart attack or scanning your body for evidence of something being wrong. These are often called Safety Behaviours.
Seek help - In one study a quarter of all people having their first panic attack called an ambulance or went to accident and emergency, they were so convinced something dangerous was happening to them. Perhaps you have done this, or called out the doctor?
Cope - People often try to cope with a panic attack by doing things they have found or have been told are helpful, for example, distracting themselves or trying to relax.
What causes panic attacks to begin?
Panic attacks can start for a number of reasons. Stress As mentioned, stressful events can cause anxiety to go up, which may lead to the alarm system being triggered. Are you aware of any stress in your life over the last few years? For example, work stress or being out of work, relationship problems, loss of a loved one, financial difficulties.
Other physical reasons
Sometimes panic attacks occur for the first time during a period of ill-health. For example some viruses can cause dizziness. Pregnancy or the menopause can cause changes in the way our body works that can lead to a first experience of panic. Consuming large amounts of caffeine, or low blood sugar can also lead to feelings of faintness. Can you think of any physical reasons for your panic attacks?
Panic attacks often begin when there are feelings from the past or present that are being “swept under the carpet”. Maybe you have relationship problems, or something from the past you need to deal with? Have a think about this and jot down any problems you might need to deal with.
Out of the blue
Sometimes we just don’t know why panic attacks begin. Some people even have their first panic attack when they are asleep! It may just be that certain people, in certain circumstances respond like the over-sensitive car alarm. Their alarm system is triggered when there is in fact no danger. In some ways it is less important to know what causes panic attacks to begin and more important to know what keeps them going.
What techniques can help to cope with and reduce panic attacks?
The good news is that panic attacks are very treatable. You may find that your panic attacks have already started to reduce because you have begun to recognise and understand, and accept them as not harmful. As we have seen, panic affects your body, your mind and your behaviour. It makes sense to try to deal with each of these. You may find some techniques more helpful than others. Not everyone finds the same things helpful. Also, if you have been having panic attacks for a while, it may take some time for these techniques to work. Don’t expect miracles straight away, but keep at it and you should see the benefits soon, when you’ve found the techniques that work best for you.
There are things you can do to help with the physical symptoms of panic, relaxation and controlled breathing. Click here to read more
Techniques for you mind to cope with and reduce panic attacks?
Stop focusing - Try to notice whether you are focusing on your symptoms, or scanning your body for something wrong. There really is no need to do this and it makes the problem far worse. It may be helpful to use the next technique to help you stop the habit. In particular, focus on what is going on outside rather than inside you.
Question your thoughts - Sometimes, rather than distracting yourself from your anxious thoughts it is more helpful to challenge them. In the long run, it is most helpful to challenge your worrying thoughts, so that you no longer believe them. For thought challenging you need to do two things: 1. Work out what your anxious thoughts and worst fears are. Everyone’s are different, you should already have a good idea from the work done so far. 2. Start to challenge these thoughts and come up with more realistic and helpful thoughts.
Behaviour - Challenging what you do is probably the most helpful way of overcoming panic. We have already talked about how avoidance, escape and safety behaviours keep panic going. It makes sense then that to reduce panic you need to reduce these behaviours. Put simply, what you need to do now is test out the situations you fear most to prove to yourself that what is written here is true: a panic attack cannot harm you.
This is best done, not all at once, but in a planned way. It’s probably best to start off with a small experiment. It’s difficult to believe something just by reading it, what you really need to do little by little is to prove to yourself what is really going on. It is important to remember that whatever you do or don’t do, the panic attack will stop. Just like any other alarm would.
Avoidance - For example, if you are frightened of being alone, or visiting a supermarket, try gradually spending a little bit more time on your own, or going to a small shop.
Escape - Note which situations you are escaping from. Do you stop eating a meal half way through in case you are sick? Or leave the supermarket without your shopping? Try staying in the situation until your panic starts to go down. What will you have learnt?
Try some Relaxation Techniques to help
Relaxation techniques including deep muscle relaxation, controlled breathing, distraction techniques and mindfulness can all help reduce anxiety. Click here to read more