Panic Attacks- What are they? Why do they happen and how can we manage them?

Anyone who has suffered a full-blown panic attack will certainly know the difference between that and generalised anxiety. Symptoms include increased heart rate, dizziness, hot sweats, hyperventilation, sweaty palms, a churning stomach and many more. Some describe the attacks as feeling paralysed or as if they are having a heart attack. Sufferers often do not know what has brought the attack on or what they are scared of but there is a huge element of fear involved.

One panic attack can often lead to a vicious cycle. After the first attack the sufferer begins to fear the next, and the next. The brain can interpret any physical symptom of another attack starting as danger. This is all due to our fight or flight response. When we are under some sort of threat we produce adrenalin to help us to deal with the fear, this can be fear of a wild animal or a worry about paying your credit card bill, the brain reacts in the same way. During this response, the nervous system causes our breathing to speed up so that we have enough oxygen to deal with the perceived threat. The heart rate then speeds up as a result, the sufferer notices this, more adrenalin is produced as a fear response to this and they are stuck in a vicious cycle.

The understanding of the primitive brain and the fight or flight response often helps to give panic attack sufferers a better understanding of their symptoms and can be the first step to helping them move forward. Knowing that the physical symptoms are your primitive brain stepping in to defend you gives the sufferer a more rational understanding and helps them to take control. The brain can not sustain the fight or flight response indefinitely so knowing this and letting the feelings pass can greatly help. The first time you have done this, the next time becomes easier and shorter and so on as you gain more confidence in controlling the attacks. The brain forms habits and if you have previously reacted with fear then the primitive brain will draw on this experience again. If you practice different techniques and learn to embed them as coping mechanisms, then the brain will draw on these instead and new neural pathways will be formed in the brain. Picture it as standing on top of a snowy mountain and looking at two different routes. One route is the path you have taken many times before with footprints embedded in the snow. The other is fresh and untrodden snow. To embed footprints in the new path you must keep walking down it, again and again until the footprints are sunken in. The more you do this, the more the snow will fall and cover the old pathway up.

The more worries and stress that we have in our lives that have built up, the more likely we are to have the fight or flight response, resulting in panic attacks. All our negative thoughts are converted into anxiety which are accumulated and stored in what we call a stress bucket. When this stress bucket overflows this causes us to operate from our primitive brain, using the fight or flight response. We then worry about the next panic attack and fill the bucket up some more, becoming stuck in that vicious cycle.

How to deal with a panic attack:

  • Understand that it WILL pass. Once sufferers understand this, they often find that the symptoms subside much quicker.
  • Breathe slowly in and out to bring your heart rate down.
  • The fight of flight response often encourages us to flee the situation. So why not try doing exactly that. Jogging on the spot, short sprints and other bursts of physical exercise may help to ease symptoms quicker.
  • Create a safe place in your mind, this could be a room somewhere, a beach, a grassy area or anywhere that you feel safe and relaxed. If you feel symptoms of an attack coming on imagine yourself in that safe place, close your eyes and slow your breathing down. Your brain can not tell the difference between imagination and reality so imagining yourself somewhere relaxing will divert your brains attention to this, instead of the panic attack symptoms.
  • Stress Reduction. Are there any areas in your life that are significantly causing you stress or anxiety? What small changes could you make to reduce that stress bucket just slightly? When we try to make big changes often this can overwhelm us even more thinking about all the things we need to achieve. Try breaking it down into small and achievable steps.