Pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweating, fear of losing control or dying. Sound familiar? These are some of the typical symptoms of a panic attack.
These intense feelings of terror and fear can last anything from a few seconds to a few minutes. The first attack often follows a stressful life event like the death of a close family member or friend, loss of a close interpersonal relationship or after a separation.
When someone has repeated panic attacks, they have a panic disorder. Research shows that about two to four in every 100 people suffer from panic disorder at any given time. There are multiple causes, including brain chemistry, genetic factors and stressful life events or circumstances.
In some cases, many years go by before someone is diagnosed correctly. During this time sufferers tend to avoid situations or places where the initial attacks took place, fearing another attack. This can be very debilitating and unnecessarily limit their lives.
The good news is that treatment, which consists of medication or psychotherapy, is effective in most cases. It's also important for a person to learn what to do when he has an attack.
Get through an attack
- Slow down. Slow your rate of breathing, slow your thoughts, slow your entire body, from head to toe. Then slowly resume your previous activities.
- Picture a relaxing scene using all your senses. Now put yourself in that scene.
- Take a stroll. Ask someone to join you and talk it over.
- Picture a person you trust, someone who believes in you, supports you and cares about your well-being. Now imagine that person is with you, offering you encouragement.
- Recall a time you handled a similar situation well. Try to bring to mind a past success and the good feelings you experienced at that time.
- Focus on the present, on concrete objects around you. Make a game of noticing details or inventing questions about every object you identify.
- Count backwards from 20 and with every number, picture someone you love or something that pleases you or calms you. These might be images you recall from the past or those you only imagine.
- Occupy your mind with an absorbing task. Plan your schedule for the day or evening; try to recall the name of all the Clint Eastwood movies you've ever seen; plan a sumptuous meal – appetiser through to dessert.
- Bring to mind the image of a person you admire and imagine yourself to actually be that person. Think as they might think, act as they might act, even feel as they might feel.
- Remind yourself that attacks always end. Always.
- Remind yourself that panic isn't dangerous.
- Take a giant yawn and stretch your entire body.
- Get mad. Vow not to let panic win out. You deserve better.
- If all else fails, take as deep a breath as you can and hold it as long as you can. Use one of the other strategies to occupy your mind. Your physical symptoms should come down and stay down.