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Panic attacks: what they are and what you can do about them

You’re terrified, you can’t catch your breath, you feel helpless and sure that you’re dying. That’s what a panic attack feels like
Panic Attacks

Panic attacks, according to health experts, are exceedingly common. Some people experience them once or twice in their lifetime, others more regularly, and they are usually brought on by situations such as public speaking, making life decisions or preparing for an interview.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is the sudden onset, otherwise known as an ‘episode’, of overwhelming anxiety and intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. These episodes manifest differently for different people and can occur during a calm or anxious state. They can take place frequently and unexpectedly, and are often not related to any external threat.

Lasting anything from a few minutes to half an hour, panic attacks occur when the brain’s normal mechanism for reacting to a threat (the fight-or-flight response) malfunctions in some way. According to The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), when these defence mechanisms malfunction, this results in an exaggerated response to a ‘threat’, which may lead to increased anxiety and, in some cases, panic.

Common symptoms and signs

The physical signs and symptoms differ dramatically from person to person. In severe cases, sufferers may feel as though they are choking or are about to faint.

The most common panic-attack symptoms that occur repeatedly and unexpectedly throughout an episode include:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness/light-headedness
  • Nausea
  • Tingling or numbness of body or limbs
  • Breathlessness or shortness of breath
  • Chest pains/heaviness in chest
  • Tight chest
  • Feeling as though you’re choking
  • Feelings of suffocation
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Shivering/trembling/twitching muscles
  • Vision disturbances, for example tunnel vision
  • Terror
  • Derealisation (feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of losing control or ‘going crazy’

A person who experiences recurring panic attacks should see a doctor, as they may suffer from a panic or anxiety disorder. These sufferers usually have recurring and unexpected attacks accompanied by persistent fears of repeated attacks.

What are the causes of panic attacks?

According to SADAG, between two and four percent of South Africans will experience some form of panic attack at some stage in their lives. It is twice as common in women as it is in men and the average onset of panic attacks is during the early 20s for women and 40s for men.

The causes of panic attacks are largely unknown. However, medical experts speculate that the following play a role:

  • Certain medications
  • Genetics
  • Acute stress
  • Tendency to be acutely sensitive to stress and prone to negative emotions
  • Changes in the way part of your brain functions
  • Trauma of some kind
  • The use or withdrawal of addictive substances (for example drugs, alcohol and caffeine)

Panic is not necessarily brought on by a recognisable incident or threat. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, these attacks are usually a manifestation of an anxious mind or constant worry as a result of excessive stress or other negative life conditions.

Can panic attacks be treated?

The good news is that panic disorders can be treated. There are many natural over-the-counter remedies, such as Rescue Remedy, which provide relief to sufferers of anxiety and fear. However, more severe cases can include treatment with medication and psychotherapy (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) in addition to self-help techniques.

Unfortunately, many people do not seek help for panic attacks, which may lead to an increase in episodes. Panic attacks can be the consequence of other disorders, says Dr Mehmet Oz. According to the Timberline and Knolls Residential Treatment Center in the US, panic attacks may trigger or worsen symptoms of other disorders, which is why it’s important to see your doctor if you suffer from panic attacks.

Doctors recommend that you do this to find relief during an attack:

  • Breathe in deeply through your nose
  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth
  • Focus your thinking on the word ‘calm’
  • Keep calm and concentrate on your breathing
  • As you focus on your breathing, you should feel yourself calming. Continue for as long as you feel it’s necessary
  • Drink camomile or rooibos tea once the episode has passed for a prolonged calming effect

Can panic attacks be prevented?

A healthy and balanced lifestyle is important. In addition to this, Dr Thomas Blake recommends doing the following to reduce or prevent repeated and/or additional panic attacks:

  • Get treatment for panic attacks as soon as possible to prevent them from worsening and/or becoming more frequent
  • Get regular physical exercise of any kind
  • Learn relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and muscle stretches to relieve stress (yoga is a good option)
  • Eat regularly and follow a healthy balanced diet
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and smoking (these can worsen symptoms and increase your risk of having an attack)

 Photo: iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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