Don’t Panic

“I think I’m losing my mind,” the woman said. “My body seems to be out of control. I feel shaky, I’m sweating, I can’t breathe, and even though I want to run out of the place, I can’t move my legs.”

Panic Attacks affect many people of both sexes, all ages and from every background. They can come on without warning at any time, and the impact can leave those who experience them afraid to leave their homes, for fear they’ll strike again. They can vary in their severity and in the symptoms, but commonly include some of the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing or thumping heart
  • Discomfort or pain in the chest
  • Sensations of choking or smothering
  • Wobbly or unsteady legs, dizziness or faintness
  • Tingling numbness or pins and needles in the arms or legs
  • Blurring or double vision
  • A queasy knot in the stomach, desire to vomit or empty your bowels
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Waves of heat or cold passing over the body, or profuse sweating
  • Feeling out of touch with your body or detached from your surroundings
  • Fear of dying (eg from heart attack, ceasing to breathe or other medical emergency) while experiencing any of the above
  • A fear of losing control or of going crazy

Not every one experiences all of these, and the presence of four or more of the symptoms confirms a panic attack. Check first with your doctor to ensure that there’s no other underlying reason for what you’re experiencing.  The symptoms of panic can last for between five and twenty minutes, though there can also be a feeling of anxiety for some time before and after the attack itself. Some people experience them frequently, while others have one or two and then never experience them again.

For many people, being able to put a name to what is happening, and reassurance that they are not dying or going mad, can help. The symptoms can be severe, and if you’re experiencing them for the first time, not knowing what’s happening can make the experience much worse.

In her excellent book “When Panic Attacks,” Aine Tubridy describes panic as the sensation of feeling you are in extreme danger, when no real danger exists. Panic is therefore a disorder of perception, or misinterpretation. The symptoms listed above are the result of a sudden surge of adrenaline into the bloodstream. This ancient and primitive response is the body’s way of giving us plenty of energy to run away from or to fight a danger, the “fight or flight” response, albeit at an inappropriate time. Logically, a person may know there is no danger, for example in the supermarket, but their body may be saying something different.

Panic can have it’s roots in current or past events, or it’s origins may never be discovered. It can be useful to explore what was going on in the person’s life shortly before their first experience of panic. The onset can often follow a traumatic event of some kind, for example, a death in the family, a serious illness, an accident, or the break down in a relationship. Sometimes it can emerge following a transition in life, moving house, leaving home for the first time, or the birth of a child. Sometimes it is in the aftermath of these events, when the dust has settled, that the panic emerges.

Attacks can often come on in public places, such as shopping malls or theatres, in strange or unknown situations or places, or a specific place or situation can be the trigger, such as driving in traffic.

Much can be done to manage panic. Learning to recognise the symptoms and knowing that their severity can be controlled, can of itself help to lessen the intensity of an attack. Your rational mind is your friend in this. If you can learn to trust that your symptoms are harmless, even though they don’t feel that way, you will be well on the way to recovery.

The following can be helpful in learning to manage and control panic:

  • Breathing: Probably more than anything else you do, breathing slowly, calmly and deeply lessens the panic feelings. A cd recording included in “When Panic Attacks” includes a useful guide to help you practice breathing more supportively.
  • Meditation: Meditation and other similar practices can help you to still the thoughts that spiral out of control before, during and after a panic attack. Again, the accompanying cd to Aine Tubridy’s book includes a meditation specifically for panic.
  • Learning your own symptoms, and to recognise what triggers an attack for you, and the signs of onset of an attack, can help you to learn to interrupt the process before it escalates out of control. Having someone to help you with this, such as a close family member or friend who can remind you of what helps you, can be a useful support here.
  • If you have severe symptoms, or if taking action yourself hasn’t resulted in any improvement of your symptoms, you may wish to seek professional help. Often people can feel ashamed to seek help for panic attacks. However, help is available, and early intervention can make a difference before the symptoms start to control your life.

In summary, panic attacks can be frightening for those who experience them. They can cause people to withdraw from situations and activities that they know may trigger them, including normal every day activities such as driving or shopping. However, the severity of the attacks can be controlled and in many cases eliminated.

Note: This article is not a substitute for medical advice. If you are suffering from panic, or are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above, check with your doctor.

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