What is a Panic Attack?
Almost everyone at some point in their lives experiences a panic attack. A panic attack is when an intense feeling of fear, dread, loss of control and entrapment overwhelms a person. There is usually no identifiable trigger and they seem to strike from seemingly nowhere. Accompanying these feelings are thoughts of an imminent disaster, impending doom and even the fear of sudden death.
A panic attack leads you down roads of irrational thinking, where even the most intelligent of people are forced to feel and believe in the most unlikely of outcomes.
Along with these feelings are other physical symptoms that occur when panic has struck. A panic attack causes our muscles to tense up, our peripheral vision to shut down (tunnel vision) and alters the way we breath – tricking us into thinking we’re not getting enough oxygen. It also causes light headedness, dizziness and sometimes nausea. Below are the main symptoms and feelings that occur during a panic attack:
The Symptoms of a Panic Attack
- Sudden and intense fright.
- A sense of derealisation / detachment from surroundings
- Chest pains
- Pounding or thumping chest
- Fast heart rate
- Difficulty maintaining a steady pace of breathing
- An overwhelming urge to ‘escape’ or run away.
- Irrational thinking. I.e. Am I going to die? Is this a heart attack? I must have a serious condition like cancer.
- Chest fluttering / heart palpitations
- Racing thoughts and confusion
- The urge to do anything but be stationary. I.e. pace the room or squeeze an object.
- Tunnel Vision
- The need to ‘escape’
The Process of a Panic Attack
A panic attack can occur when the body releases a large amount of unexpected adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline can cause all sorts of changes both physically and mentally, so if we’re unprepared or ‘caught off guard’ by a newly released dump of adrenaline, then it could be expected of us to panic about this sudden change.
The panic comes from the confusion about what is happening and this works in tandem with a belief that you cannot cope. Adrenaline actually causes our minds to race and be filled with all sorts of thoughts and conclusions as to why we’re panicking and why we’re feeling strange.
This would explain why so many people are convinced that they’re having a heart attack, or that they’re going insane, or that they have an incurable condition, and so on. It is the adrenaline that affects our rationality during these periods of panic, thus causing them to turn into prolonged panic attacks. Further to this, there is also a large amount of the chemical cortisol flowing through our bodies. This chemical is partly responsible for the feeling of tension and unease.
Can you control a Panic Attack?
Take comfort in the fact that panic attacks do not last forever, because the adrenal gland finally becomes exhausted and cannot release any further adrenaline. A panic attack can be controlled to an extent, but only when the person allows the adrenaline that is fuelling it to be processed by the body. During the period of high anxiety, adrenaline and cortisol flow through the veins which tricks the brain into thinking there is danger within the environment. This is widely known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. The brain will keep searching for danger as to give reason as to why there is so much adrenaline in the bloodstream. When there is no ‘danger’ in our surroundings, the mind then turns to the imagination to attach a weighted fear. This is basically what a panic attack is; a confused reaction to the ‘fight or flight’ response where the imagination causes frightening thoughts.
Common thoughts associated with a panic attack include:
- I feel like I’m about to die
- I really need to escape
- Something really ‘bad’ is about to happen
- Is this the start of a heart attack?
- I think I’m going to really embarrass myself
- Can everyone see that I’m struggling with this panic attack?
Panic Attacks can be controlled when the person going through one decides to side with their rational mind. If the person truly believes that the panic attack is harmless, then the symptoms associated with panic attacks will disappear in a shorter amount of time. If this is method is maintained, then the duration, severity and overall number of panic attacks decreases. Diverting attention away from the panic attack, whilst staying in the same situation, is a good way to train the brain that there is no imminent danger. The body stops releasing adrenaline, the heart stops pounding, the dizziness stabilizes and vision returns to normal. Furthermore, the need to frantically obsess over thoughts lessens.
When do Panic Attacks turn into a Panic Disorder?
A Panic Disorder can only be officially diagnosed by a General Practitioner or Psychologist. However, early indicators of panic disorder include:
- Having numerous and prolonged panic attacks on a daily basis
- Spending time worrying about the next panic attack
- Afraid to do ‘normal’ activities due to the fear of a panic attack
- Using a lot of time trying to apprehend a panic attack from arising
If these statements seem familiar to you then it would be advised that you see your doctor so they can put you on track for a diagnosis. It is important to note that the label of a panic disorder should not be feared; a panic disorder can be treated and overcome with professional intervention. There are many panic attack success stories included on this site for your reference.
Can I get help for my Panic Attacks?
There are various anxiety support groups around the country, as well as psychotherapy options available through the NHS. Here at The Panic Room, Joshua works specifically with people with the aforementioned problems surrounding panic attacks. The unique aspect of The Panic Room is that Joshua is a previous sufferer of panic disorder himself, therefore the counselling and advice is rooted within an empathetic and understanding foundation. For more information look at Is The Panic Room For Me? section of this site.
Extracts in this article taken from Anxiety: Panicking about Panic by Joshua Fletcher
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