Don’t Panic! - Panic Attacks Explained

What is a panic attack?

It is normal, natural and common to get panicky from time to time. You may be late for work, think you can hear a burglar downstairs, or be ready to sit an exam. These feelings are normal and pass fairly quickly. They are simply down to our ‘flight or fight’ responses that our body has been equipped with to prepare for potentially threatening situations. The heart beats quicker and the digestive system closes down in order to allow the body to concentrate on the perceived threat.

A panic attack has similarities with this, but there are notable differences. A panic attack often occurs when there is no obvious physical threat, and the feelings are stronger than ‘normal’ panic. However panic attacks are not dangerous and therefore nothing bad is actually going to happen to you. It is very important that you accept this. It is simply like a false alarm – like an annoying smoke detector that goes off at the wrong times. The problem is that our ‘alarm system’ was designed millions of years ago when we had many more potential dangers to deal with. We have a lot less potential threats to deal with now, but our body does not know this. Instead today we also have lots of different stresses that we are not designed to deal with (see article on stress).

A large number of people have experienced panic attacks at some point in their lives. Some people may get them daily, whereas others may get them every few months or even years. They are fairly common and are not a sign of mental illness.

Some of the symptoms include:
Heart pounding, beating fast, or missing a beat
Chest pains
Breathing fast or feeling short of breath
Numbness or tingling in the fingers toes or lips
Feeling sick
Feeling faint
Feelings of terror
Feelings of unreality, like you are not really there
Feeling anxious in situations where you have had a panic attack before

People often think negative thoughts, which are untrue, such as:
I am having a heart attack
I am going to be sick
I cannot breath
I am going to make an idiot of myself
I have to get out of here now

After experiencing a panic attack people sometimes escape the situation and avoid it in the future. This can be detrimental and may re-enforce the fear. The mind will realise that something ‘bad’ happened the last time you were in a particular situation, and the longer you leave it before facing the situation again, the more the mind is convinced the same will happen again. This can become a self fulfilling prophecy.

It is better to quickly face the situation again, even if you need to ‘dilute’ it at first. For example if you had a panic attack in the supermarket, you may wish to initially travel to the supermarket but not even go in. For the next step you may wish to go inside, but not buy anything. Next you may wish to do a small shop, or have a friend to go round with you. After returning from these exposures, notice how you have returned and you are OK – you are still alive and well! Some of you may wish to simply return to the scene and carry on as normal. By challenging your fears you can become more in control, and the attacks should become less and less common.

It is also useful to not quickly escape the situation. If you can, try and remain in the place you are having a panic attack until it passes. This is really helpful in breaking the cycle of fear. Remind yourself that you have had panic attacks before and nothing bad is going to actually happen.

Thankfully panic attack are very successfully treated with hypnosis and breathing exercises. Slow breathing techniques can really help the panic to go away. Regular use of all these will undoubtedly allow you to have a much more relaxed outlook on life.

- Jon Rhodes

Author's Bio: 

Jon Rhodes is a well known clinical hypnotherapist from the UK. Please click here for more details of his audio program hypnosis for panic attacks