Panic attacksA panic attack is a combination of mental and physical symptoms which your body experiences as an overwhelming rush.

They can occur without warning and at any time although they are usually brought on by a stressful situation. Figures from the UK’s National Health Service reveal that at least one in 10 people experience occasional panic attacks and around 2{7e66f01e68c52d858b59d425bd8f3886b02d30322136bee7d8e459b39be00af4} of people suffer from panic disorder – in which panic attacks are recurring and regular, and the feelings of anxiety and stress occur for no apparent reason.

Panic disorder is twice as likely to occur in women as in men and people who have had one panic attack are at a greater risk of further attacks.

The mental symptoms of a panic attack are fear, terror, impending doom and the feeling that you’re losing control. Those who suffer multiple events can also develop an intense worry about when the next attack may occur and therefore create a fear for places where attacks have happened before.

The physical symptoms may include any combination of:

  • Feeling sweaty or having chills
  • Shaking and sweating
  • Tingling or numbness in the hands and fingers
  • Feeling faint, weak and dizzy
  • Choking sensations and nausea
  • Muscle spasms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pains
  • Breathing difficulties

The most important aspect of dealing with panic attacks is to be fully aware of what is happening and why. Firstly, being able to recognise the physical symptoms will help allay some of the more scary fears about whether you’re having a heart attack or severe allergic reaction.

And then you can try to understand what your body is going through to produce this reaction.

Research out of Spain in 2013, showed for the first time that a specific gene was a factor in how susceptible we are to developing panic disorder through developing a situation in which our brain has an “exaggerated formation of fear memories”.

“We have observed that deregulation of [the gene] NTRK3 produces changes in brain development that lead to malfunctions in the fear-related memory system,” explains Mara Dierssen, head of the Cellular and Systems Neurobiology group at the Centre for Genetic Regulation. “In particular, this system is more efficient at processessing information to do with fear, the thing that makes a person overestimate the risk in a situation and therefore feel more frightened and, also, that stores that information in a more lasting and consistent manner.”

Although there’s clearly this genetic side to the development of panic disorder through the “mis-remembering” of panic attacks, there’s clearly an environmental factor in how sufferers develop the disorder, for example through accumulated stress.

If you feel a panic attack coming on or you realise that’s what you are experiencing there are a number of techniques developed through psychotherapy and psychology, which can help to relax you – and by practicing them daily, you can limit the frequency of the attacks.

  1. Relax your breathing: Place one hand on your upper chest and the other over your diaphragm and inhale deeply through your nose while counting to five. Then exhale slowly to the same count of five. Concentrating on the rhythmic rise and fall of your hands and the counting will help you relax.
  2. Get comfy and relax your muscles: Find somewhere to sit or lie down and then work slowly from your toes up through your body contracting each muscle group for a count of five and then relaxing them. By the time you reach your face, you ought to feel more relaxed.
  3. Exercise: Light aerobic exercise can help you take your mind off the attack and helps the body produce endorphins. Yoga and stretching exercises can also be combined with breathing techniques.
  4. Use peripheral vision: Breathing deeply, relaxing your jaw and letting your field of vision broaden activates the parasympathetic nervous system which helps calm you.

If you are having numerous panic attacks then there are a range of treatments available including medication and cognitive therapy.

You can also try to understand your fear and prepare for future attacks by creating a journal before, during and after attacks, or by what’s known as paradoxical intention.

This involves trying to provoke an attack by going into a situation which has prompted an attack before, only this time armed with the tools to cope.

Contact the Robert Street Clinic to find a psychotherapist or psychologist who will help devise an anxiety treatment plan which lets you combat your attacks.