Many people have had or will have a panic attack at some point in their lifetime, this may be due to a related condition that the individual may have such as anxiety, or it may be a one-off experience brought on by stress or anxiety in everyday life. But what actually is a panic attack?
A panic attack is one of your body’s natural responses to fear, danger or stress. They tend to occur when you are in a situation in which you feel in danger or unable to leave, which triggers your body’s fight or flight response and results in the ‘panic attack’. However, while many panic attacks do occur when in a situation which is provoking some kind of fear, people may experience panic attacks seemingly out of nowhere and without any warning.
Panic attacks can happen at any time, whether that be day or night. They may be a one-off event for someone which they do not experience again, or it can become more regular. Many people will suffer from one panic attack at a time but it is not uncommon for someone to experience a few panic attacks at once depending on the situation they are in and how intense their feelings are.
Panic attack symptoms
On average each panic attack lasts around 5-20 minutes, with the symptoms of one hitting their peak at around the 10-minute mark. People can have panic attacks that are longer, however, they rarely last more than an hour, and more than likely they will stop after 30 minutes.
The symptoms and signs of a panic attack can be frightening, especially if you have never had one before or it has occurred out of the blue. Symptoms include, shortness of breath, hyperventilation, heart palpitations, tight chest, shaking, sweating, detachment, nausea, feeling lightheaded, tingling sensations and hot or cold flushes. Additionally, when having a panic attack you may feel as though you lack control and that you are going to faint and if severe people can mistake them for heart attacks.
Why might a panic attack happen?
Panic attacks usually are experienced when you find yourself in a situation in which you feel endangered, stressed or have high levels of discomfort. However, they can also come seemingly out of nowhere which can be scary. If this is the case try to think back to when your last panic attacks have happened, there may actually be a common occurrence that is your panic attack trigger, such as a certain place, situation or activity. For example, this could be before a flight, delivering a presentation or a social situation you feel uncomfortable with. Knowing what can trigger your panic attack is very useful as then you can plan in advance ways you can reduce the likelihood of one occurring and similarly have techniques ready in case you do have a panic attack.
The exact reason as to why people have panic attacks is not well understood, however, what is known is that they tend to run in the family and so if someone in your family suffers you may be more susceptible. Also, there has also been found to be a connection between panic attacks and going through major life transitions such as moving home, starting a new job, getting married or having a baby, and stressful situations in life can also trigger panic attacks. Furthermore, panic attacks may happen as a result of another disorder that the individual suffers from, such as depression and phobias.
Ultimately panic attacks can happen to anyone at any time, these are just some of the things that bring them on faster. Panic attacks, while they are frightening are not dangerous and will not cause you any kind of physical harm. Panic attacks are treatable and there are some techniques and strategies you can do yourself to help you either during a panic attack, before and after.
What can I do to help myself?
During a panic attack, you may feel like you are out of control and there’s nothing you can do about it, but that isn’t the case. It is important to know things you can do to either calm yourself down during a panic attack, to stop them happening in the first place or once it has occurred.
Focus on your breathing. While you are having a panic attack symptoms such as hyperventilation can lead you feeling lightheaded and having a tight chest which may make you panic more. Take deep breaths in and out and focus on the fact that this is something you can control. This will calm you down and help your panic attack end sooner.
Stimulate your senses. You may feel disconnected from yourself or your surroundings while you are in the midst of a panic attack. Focusing on a particular sense such as taste or touch can help for two reasons. They can help you to reconnect with the environment you are in by focusing on the way something around you feels or tastes. Additionally, they help you to focus on something else, not just your panic attack symptoms which will help you to bring the attack to a close.
Learn about panic attacks. Learning about what can bring on a panic attack or what happens to other people during one can help to reassure you that what you are experiencing is normal. Your symptoms are typical of a panic attack and you are not in danger.
Talk to someone. This should be someone you trust and feel comfortable talking to, such as a family member or a close friend. Tell them why you think it happened if you know your triggers and what it feels like. This way they can either help you feel calmer in these triggering situations to prevent the panic attack from happening in the first place or while you are having one they know techniques and things to say to you that will help calm you down.