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Panic is different to anxiety. Both are cyclical in nature, meaning anxiety and panic disorders can be very debilitating. Panic attacks tend to be more extreme, so one attack produces a fear of another. In effect, it produces a fear of fear meaning an attack is more likely to happen. A panic attack is a severe attack of an acute anxiety reaction resulting in severe physical and emotional reactions. Sometimes they come with no warning and can be triggered by a situation or event. This situation or event may be seen as dangerous by your subconscious rather than your conscious mind, hence sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere. 

As I have myself experienced many a panic attack, I can tell you it’s not an experience you forget in a hurry! I remember in my training there were only two of us in the class who had ever experienced a panic attack. One of us had to explain what it feels like, and I was the lucky individual. Even just recounting what a panic attack feels like made me very anxious and I started to experience some of the symptoms. So from the top of my head (calming cup of tea in hand), here is a brief example of your typical panic attack:

  • Start to feel anxious, don’t know why, this makes you more anxious
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweaty hands
  • Breathing deeper and faster but even trying to control it doesn’t make any difference. Feel Nauseous.
  • Anxiety increases
  • Chest pain starts, 
  • Negative thoughts start – generally along the lines of “I’m going to die” “I’m going mad” “I’m losing my mind”
  • Feel very hot
  • Feel light headed
  • Begin to shake (from the adrenaline)
  • Fingers feel tingly
  • The need to run away is almost overwhelming

Panic attacks can last from 1 minute to 40 minutes and when they come in waves can last for up to 2 hours, but however long it feels like a lifetime. Panic attacks can be a common symptom when dealing with phobias. If your subconscious wanted to tell you something was an extreme danger, a very good way to do this is to make you panic so you run away from the situation or fight it off.

Panic attacks are not dangerous in healthy people. Although you feel like you’re going to die, it’s extremely unlikely that you will. The reason being that panic attacks are designed to keep you alive, they’re part of your fight or flight response, so what would be the point in them killing you? That would be biological irony!!!

Panic attacks are related to slight abnormalities in brain messenger chemicals known as neurotransmitters. This is the reason that medications can be effective in their relief. They also tend to run in families and are more likely to be triggered by a life crisis, like bereavement for example.

A Panic Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder characterised by recurrent, unexpected panic attacks. Remember earlier I said a panic attack can lead to a fear of fear (a fear of having another panic attack)? This is the extreme version of this. Although generally perceived as a behavioural disorder, it can be caused by a chemical imbalance. Although a panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder, they are different. Here’s how you tell:

Anxiety: An emotional reaction, sometimes with physical symptoms, that happens as a result of chronic stressors. These stressors build to intense emotional reactions (anxiety) that can last for days, weeks, months or years. 

Panic Attacks: A severe emotional and physical reaction, your body’s drastic attempt to avoid a perceived dangerous situation. This prompts acute events (a panic attack) triggered by a (seemingly) sudden, out-of-the-blue cause: duration is short and symptoms are more intense. 

Panic attacks can occur at any age to anybody. The problem with panic attacks in children is that they are less likely to know what’s going on, also the parent is more likely to be distressed as well. Seeing somebody have a panic attack is not a nice experience, the key is to keep calm. They need you to be strong for them, they need to know they will be ok. This is also the key to dealing with a panic attack – you will always, always come out of it. Even though it seems like it’s lasting forever, you will calm down again. The general rule is that panic attacks can’t last for more than 40 minutes. However, many people have reported that they have panic attacks for hours, the problem is that panic attacks can roll into one another, so although it feels like you’ve a panic attack for an hour it’s more likely you’ve had more than one and the extreme symptoms have over-ridden the brief calmer moments, or you felt anxious between the attacks anyway. Remember this though, your body can only produce so much adrenaline, therefore the panic has to eventually stop at some point because quite simply, you run out of juice!

The best way to deal with a panic attack, firstly, is to breathe. Hyperventilating increases carbon dioxide in the brain, you need oxygen in there instead and deep, slow breathing not only is good for you physically but it can provide a good distraction, something to concentrate on rather than the crippling fear and negative thoughts. Next you need to talk yourself through it. Remind yourself you will be OK, you will get through this, it will end, you’re not dying, you’re not going mad, etc etc. You need to do this over and over and over again, it’s called self soothing. The panic attack will last as long as it lasts, but YOU WILL ALWAYS BE OK EVENTUALLY. 

I hope this article has been of some help, next time I’ll discuss bereavement and the grief curve.

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by Jenny