Inspiration – What are panic attacks?

I’ve started to focus my research on panic attacks – what they are, what causes them, how to stop them, etc.

Reach Out is one of Ireland’s leading websites about mental health for young people. Looking at their site, I came across a section dedicated to panic attacks.

The section explains what panic attacks are, how common panic attacks are, the effects, the causes, different ways to help panic attacks, as well as getting help for them.

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear or extreme anxiety. They occur when the “fright, fight or flight” response is triggered, although there is no sign of danger.

If you’re experiencing a panic attack, your body will react like you are in a dangerous situation even though you’re not.

How common are panic attacks?

Panic attacks can happen without any warning. The attack could last for a few minutes or up to half an hour. After the attack, it might take some time to start to feel OK again.

You might even start avoiding situations or activities that you think might trigger an attack, like lecture halls, shopping centres, public transport, airplanes, lifts or being alone.

The effects of panic attacks

  • sweating
  • feeling short of breath
  • pounding heart
  • chest pains
  • feeling unsteady
  • feeling like you’re choking
  • dry mouth
  • hot or cold flushes
  • tingling
  • feeling faint
  • trembling
  • nausea or diarrhoea
  • feeling like you’re losing control or you can’t escape.

Causes of panic attacks

The causes of panic attacks are still being researched. However, there is evidence that different types of stress such as ongoing stress or a one-off stressful event is associated with panic attacks.

There are some illnesses such as diabetes, asthma, or inner ear complaints that have similar symptoms to panic attacks. Depression, anxiety and OCD have also been associated with panic attacks.

Different ways to help panic attacks

Remind yourself that this is only an uncomfortable feeling and it will pass. To help it do so, try and distract yourself by thinking about something different.

Try counting backwards in threes from 100 or sing the lines of your favourite song. See if you can concentrate on your breathing, focusing your attention on something else.

A way to help get rid of those hormones is to exercise, especially doing something that raises your heart rate. Regular exercise uses up naturally produced adrenaline and so can help lessen panic attacks.

Relaxation techniques can be really effective. If you’re having a lot of panic attacks, it can help to get a relaxation CD or try some meditation/relaxation apps.

This can help to reduce your overall stress. Other forms of relaxation are also useful, such as yoga, Tai Chi, pilates, meditation, swimming and even going for a walk.

Try to practise some slow, controlled breathing while you’re not having an attack and when you get good at it, try to use it while panicking to slow your breathing down:

  • hold your breath and count to ten, then breathe out
  • breathe in through your nose for the count of three, then out through your mouth for the count of three – continue this for one minute
  • hold your breath again for the count of ten
  • do this for about 20 minutes a day (and you could break it up, like doing four five-minute sessions), and any time you’re feeling panicky.

Below is a video they have provided which talks about the above topics:

For me, this section was extremely helpful. I learned a bit more about panic attacks, what causes them, the symptoms and different ways you can help stop them.

One thing that was quite interesting to me was that different illnesses like diabetes are linked to panic attacks, as well as the uncertainty of why people experience panic attacks. Also, stimulants like coffee and energy drinks, as well as drugs and alcohol can all trigger panic attacks.

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