A panic attack (sometimes called an anxiety attack) is a sudden, non-adaptive activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Most of us know the sympathetic nervous system as our “fight or flight” system. A panic attack is an “over-activation” of the sympathetic nervous system. Sufferers experience a sudden onset of intense fear. Physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms follow.
- Shortness of breath
- A sensation of choking or being smothered
- Heart palpations
- Chest pain or tightness
- De-realization (seeing the world as unreal)
These symptoms may alarm the sufferer, especially when they happen for the first time. They are the cause of many emergency department visits. Many people believe they are having a heart attack. By interpreting the symptoms as being much more serious than they really are, many sufferers increase their anxiety and fear, thus increasing their symptoms in what is known as a positive feedback loop.
Some people are prone to be more anxious than others because of their genetics, their upbringing, life experiences, etc. The trigger for a panic attack can sometimes be identified, such as exposure to a phobia or stressful situation. Sometimes the sufferer cannot identify the trigger for an attack. It happens for no reason they can identify.
The most effective known long-term treatment is cognitive behavioral theory (changing your thinking habits to change your moods and behavior). Another effective treatment plan involves specific types of medications known as SSRIs. Another thing that helps make them less frequent is regular exercise.
But what should you do in the moment when you are experiencing a panic attack?
- Control your breathing: Use belly breathing for long slow breaths. Breathe in slowly, “filling the belly” for five seconds, hold the breath for two seconds, then exhale slowly for five seconds. Do this for two cycles; breathe normally for five cycles, then try the controlled breathing again. This is known to trigger a relaxation response, slowing down the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and slowing down brain activity.
- Know that it is temporary, not dangerous, and that it will pass.
- Say or repeat something to yourself that will help soothe you. “I will get through this and then it will be over.”
- Accept the symptoms and feelings without judging yourself.
- Find a comfortable place to sit and ride it out while focusing on your relaxation.
If you suffer from panic attacks, please seek out a medical professional to help you find a strategy that works for you.