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Panic Attacks

1 out of 75 people suffer from panic attacks. It most likely that you know of someone who has experienced such anxiety.Beverley, Counselling Psychologist, looks at panic attacks and ways to help reduce them.

A Brief look at Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are common phenomena which seem to strike suddenly, such as when you are driving in your car or doing grocery shopping. A panic attack is an overwhelming sense of fear or apprehension caused by your brain misinterpreting a situation as being petrifying. Panic attacks are a form of survival – the fight, flight or freeze response – which humans have when they are faced with a (perceived) threat. While, usually, being completely harmless, panic attacks are extremely unpleasant and one tends to think that they are going crazy, they are having a heart attack or they are going to die when experiencing a panic attack. These thoughts are often in response to the symptoms felt, such as dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, pounding heartbeat, chest pains or hot flushes.

What to do during a panic attack

Asking you to do things while you are experiencing an uncontrollable moment of fear, does not sound rational. However, by practising the below four strategies you are more likely to be in control of your anxiety and understand it. For more effective management of panic attacks or general anxiety, all four strategies are to be employed at the same time. With consistent application, the strategies are likely to become more natural and automatic.

1. Breathing

Most people feel as though they are unable to breathe or get enough air into their lungs during a panic attack. Try taking deep slow breaths – breathe in through your nose for four counts and hold for four counts before breathing out through your mouth for four counts – and get as much air as possible into your lungs. If breathing through your nose is not working for you, try breathing through your mouth instead.

As panic attacks are due to an overwhelming amount of Adrenalin in your body, taking a brisk walk, running in the spot or going for a run may assist with alleviating the symptoms of anxiety and assisting you with deep breathing.

2. Recognise that you won’t get harmed

It is important to know that anxiety or panic attacks will not harm you. It can get extremely uncomfortable and feel as though you are going crazy but it will pass. Typically, a panic attack will last four to six minutes.

Recognition of the symptoms in your body will enable you to identify the anxiety for what it is; an excess amount of Adrenalin coursing through your body.

3. Accept and identify the threat

Following on from the previous point, accepting what is happening is vital. ‘Welcome’ the anxiety or panic and let it visit for a moment. Identify the reason for the anxiety and panic, such as you are having a panic attack because you have not fully prepared for a presentation and you are afraid of losing your job. This will enable the anxiety to decrease a degree. Part of accepting or ‘welcoming’ the anxiety is recognising that you are not actually in danger and understanding that the feelings of dread will pass shortly.

By fighting the anxiety, you will be conditioning your brain to interpret the anxiety as a threat.

4. Distract your thoughts

Distracting your thoughts from the panic attack may assist with you riding it out. Concentrate on the things you can see, feel, smell and hear in your surroundings. Focus on the details of the environment. This may distract your anxious thoughts and decrease the level of anxiety. Additionally, you can count backwards from 100 in 6’s or count out of order 5 7 9 11 3 22 8.

5. Seeking Assistance

When seeking assistance, medication is an option. Doctors tend to prescribe medication and dosage suited to your situation. Some medications may be addictive thus should only be taken as prescribed.

Psychotherapy is another form of assistance. CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) has been shown to be the most effective when dealing with panic attacks and anxiety however it is not the sole approach. An important factor in psychotherapy treatment, no matter the therapist’s preferred paradigm, is the relationship.

If you or a loved one are experiencing panic attacks or general anxiety which is distressing and causing dysfunction in your daily life routine, Meaningful Minds Psychologists may be of assistance, 011 615 1030.

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