Panic attacks (part 1)

June, 2014

Was that a panic attack?

You might think a panic attack would be easy to recognise, but it isn’t. Sometimes panic feels so awful, and takes you by such surprise, that people think it must be something much more serious, like a heart attack. In one study a quarter of all people having their first panic attack called an ambulance or went to A&E, they were so convinced something dangerous was happening to them.

A panic attack is a strong feeling of terror that comes on very suddenly. Physical symptoms include a pounding heart, fast breathing, shaking and wobbly legs. People often have frightening thoughts and think something awful is happening. After experiencing this, they then often try to avoid it happening again by limiting what they do and where they go.

A panic attack is an uncomfortable and scary experience, especially if you do not know what it is, however
it is very important to know and understand that panic is not dangerous or harmful.

Panic affects your body, your mind and the way you behave. The first step in overcoming panic attacks is recognising these symptoms for what they are:

Your Body
Heart pounding strongly and quickly, or skipping a beat then thudding
Pain/s in your chest
Breathing quickly, gulping air or feeling breathless
Pounding in your head
Numbness or tingling in fingers, toes or lips
Feeling as though you can’t swallow, feeling sick
Feeling shaky and wobbly.

Your Mind
Feelings of utter terror
Feelings of unreality, as though you’re not really there
Feeling anxious in situations where you have had a panic attack before
Having frightening thoughts such as:
“I’m going to have a heart attack”
“I’m going to collapse”
“I’m running out of air”
“I’m going mad”
“I’m choking”
“I’m going to be sick”
“I’m losing control”
“I’m going to make a complete fool of myself”
“I’ve got to get out of here”

It’s important to remember that these thoughts are just your fears and don’t actually happen in a panic attack – but people often believe they will, which only makes the panic worse.

Your behaviour
After experiencing a panic attack, people often react by:

Avoiding situations that have caused panic before, or that they fear might cause panic, for example going shopping.
Escaping when they start to feel panicky, eg by rushing out of a building.
Preventing what they think is going to happen, by doing something that makes them feel safer, such as taking big breaths, sitting down, lying down, or holding on to something.
Asking for help from friends or the emergency services, or calling NHS Direct.
Coping by doing things they think might be helpful, eg distracting themselves, lying down or trying to relax.

However, whilst all of these things can help to stop a panic attack, they can also become part of the problem.

If you have quite a few of these symptoms, thoughts and behaviours, then it is very likely that you are suffering from panic attacks.

Next month: What causes panic attacks