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.

Sleep- Why do I struggle and what can I do to improve my sleep?

If you’re under any form of stress or anxiety at the moment then you’ll undoubtedly be struggling with your sleep. Waking up in the night for hours on end, struggling to get to sleep, waking up at 4am or finding it difficult to get out of bed in the mornings.

Getting more sleep would enable you to be free from that constant stress and anxiety. You would be more focused at work, spend more time with the family, feel less exhausted and have more energy. You would be less irritable and emotional, suffer less from aches and pains, make better and more focused decisions and stop reaching for those high fat and high sugary foods.

So how does anxiety and stress have such an impact on our sleep? Think of a bucket in which all our stress, anxiety and negative thoughts build up in. If that bucket is overflowing then our sleep is affected as a result. We use REM sleep to empty that bucket. During the night, our brain processes events of the day and moves them from being an emotional memory to a narrative memory, which we have control over. For one reason or another REM sleep is restricted to 20% of our sleep pattern. Now, if we try and overdo this then the brain will wake us up. You will know the difference between that and a sound in the night waking you up for instance as you will be wide awake and frustrated. On the other hand, if that stress bucket is overflowing you may find it difficult to get up in the mornings, feeling grumpy and tired. This is because there is so much in that bucket that it takes a great deal to empty it. That REM sleep uses large amounts of energy and if we try and overdo that 20% then this will exhaust us even more, leaving us low and depressed.

You can see how this then becomes a vicious cycle. The more you have in that bucket, the poorer quality sleep you will have and the more anxious and stressed you will feel.

So, the most effective way that we can improve our quality of sleep is to reduce stress and anxiety and empty that bucket. I can’t stress that enough. Many people think that they can ‘bank’ sleep like a credit and debit system. For example, if they don’t sleep in the week that copious amounts of sleep will make up for it at the weekend. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that and a lack of sleep daily on a long term basis has severe effects on our mood, memory, motivation, immune system, long term health and even life span.

Here are my top tips for helping improve sleep which in turn will reduce your anxiety and stress:

  1. Stick to a sleep routine. Aim to wake up and go to bed at the same time each day, even at weekends. Your body likes to stick to a rhythm and it will thank you for it.
  2. Try to exercise no later than 2- 3 hours before bed time.
  3. Avoid caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant. Watch out for foods with it hidden in like chocolate, cola and certain teas.
  4. Avoid alcohol before bed. Alcohol deprives you of any REM sleep whatsoever.
  5. Avoid napping after 3pm.
  6. Take a hot bath before bed. The drop in body temperature when you get out of the bath will help you to feel sleepy.
  7. Do something that helps you to relax before bed, whether that’s reading or listening to music. Make sure that you allow yourself time to switch off from work.
  8. Keep the room cool. 18 degrees Celsius is optimal body temperature for sleep.
  9. Avoid technology. The light on your phone or iPad mimics natural daylight and will encourage you to stay awake.
  10. If you wake up don’t lie in bed awake for over 20 minutes. The anxiety of not being able to get to sleep will make it harder to do so. Read a book for 30 minutes and try and switch off.

If you would like to find out how Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can help to get your sleep patterns back on track, eliminating stress and anxiety as a result then please get in touch to arrange a free initial consultation.

Weight Management- Why do I struggle to lose weight and how can Solution Focused Hypnotherapy help?

Do you try and follow a diet and/ or exercise plan and find yourself reverting back to old habits regularly, unable to shift the weight you’d like to lose? Have you put on some weight in lock down that you’re finding difficult to get rid of? You don’t have to be able to afford a PT, nutritionist and chef to get on track…

Here’s the science. Nobody can lose weight with a full stress bucket. When you’re stressed, anxious or thinking negatively you automatically set yourself up for failure. A build up of cortisol in your system leads to reaching for food. (In primitive times this response made us face our fears and hunt for food for the family.)  Those foods that we probably reach for are usually high in fat or sugar. This then leads to an increase in dopamine which makes you want to eat more and a reduction of leptin and ghrelin which suppresses hunger. You eat more, you feel guilty- the vicious cycle starts again.

The chances are, if you’re stressed or anxious then you’re probably not sleeping well either. The lack of sleep produces chemicals in our body which increase our appetites leading to an increase of calories. If you’re stressed and not sleeping well then your energy levels are also more likely to be low, meaning that you are probably more sedentary and not burning those extra calories that you’ve consumed. All in all a greater calorie intake and a lower calorie expenditure.

In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy we start with that reduction of cortisol by emptying the stress bucket which in turn will re organise your sleep patterns, gaining more rational control and making better food choices as a result. You won’t lose weight in one session, no. But with around 8-12 sessions (dependant on the individual) you WILL achieve a more positive mindset which in turn will reduce stress hormones , making you more motivated to go and achieve your goals . Gradually the weight loss will come as a result of this, taking whichever route you choose, small steps at a time. That sounds like winning all round to me 💪🏻.

Online Sessions

During the current situation I am offering online sessions via zoom. These are just as effective as face to face sessions and thousands of therapists over the world are working online right now. The session content is exactly the same as any face to face session. There are even some added bonuses…

  • You don’t need to leave the comfort of your own home.
  • Travel time is reduced completely.
  • You can attend a session in your pjs!
  • You get to complete trance on your own couch or even your bed- wherever you feel the comfiest.

So overall, online sessions are great! Please don’t struggle with your situation. If you aren’t sleeping well, are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or lacking motivation please get in touch. The consultation is free and sessions are half price.

Covid-19- Staying positive and reducing anxiety.

At this uncertain time where Covid-19 is all around us and creating so much anxiety and fear it seems a good time to explain how we can stay positive and reduce our anxiety during this current time.

The most important thing to remember is that we can’t control what is happening around us. We can only control our own thoughts and actions. Anxiety is created when we negatively forecast the future. In this situation we may be thinking, ‘I’m going to get the virus’, ‘My family members will get it’, ‘What will happen if I have to self isolate?’ It is important to remember that our brains can not tell the difference between imagination and reality. When we have these negative thoughts our brains go into overdrive, thinking that the situation is real and trying to protect us as a result. The way our brains will step in to help us out is either through anxiety, depression or anger or a combination of all three. In primitive times, these responses would have been appropriate to protect ourselves against wild animals and tribesmen, but not so much now. So how can we control these anxieties?…

The main method that we have as humans to stay happy, focused and brave is that our brains can create serotonin. Some of you may have heard of serotonin before, it is commonly referred to as the ‘happy hormone’ and it is easier to produce naturally than we may think. In prehistoric times cavemen produced serotonin by going out to hunt, supporting themselves and their families and being thankful for the fact that their families were eating because of them! So, although we don’t have to go out to hunt, we do need to produce serotonin in other ways to stay in control of our anxiety and negative thoughts. The way we do this is in the following ways:

  • Positive actions
  • Positive thoughts
  • Positive interactions

When we do these things we produce a constant flow of serotonin that prevents our brains from going into overdrive and producing an overload of stress hormones (adrenaline).

So what can we do to help us to keep on top of these positive actions, interactions and thoughts?

If you still can, then get outside in the fresh air, even if it’s for 20 minutes. Being outdoors produces masses of serotonin, especially when the sun is shining! Continue to exercise if you can, exercise is one of the biggest producers of serotonin. Keep talking to people, even if you are self isolating, chat to people via whats app, facetime, skype, anything! A good conversation with a friend of family member will perk you up no end. Maybe do something nice for a neighbour such as getting them a bit of shopping, doing things for others in turn makes us feel better! Write down some positive things or things that you are grateful for. Sometimes we forget all the good things we do have, especially with everything going on in the world right now. Seeing those things written down will help you to boost your serotonin levels and beat that anxiety. And the most important thing- sleep! A good sleep helps to empty our anxieties from the day and wake up the next day feeling refreshed and ready to go.

So, although we can’t control COVID-19 we CAN control our own thoughts and stay positive 🙂