Panic Attacks

What Is It?

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are a sudden a heightened activation of the bodies central nervous system. This can occur unexpectedly during a calm state or in an anxious state. Although panic attacks can occur just on their own, it is not uncommon for individuals to experience panic attacks in the context of other psychological struggles. For example, someone with social anxiety might have a panic attack before giving a talk at a conference and someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder might have a panic attack when prevented from engaging in a ritual or compulsion.
Panic attacks are extremely unpleasant and can be very frightening. As a result, people who experience repeated panic attacks often become very worried about having another attack and may make changes to their lifestyle to avoid having panic attacks. For example, avoiding exercise to keep their heart rate low, or avoiding certain places.

Panic attacks tend to follow a similar pattern and the CBT way of working with one can be helpful for understanding what happens. Something begins to trigger the sympathetic nervous system which is used for dealing with threats, we can be aware of this trigger or sometimes we may not be aware. Following this, we notice what is physically happening with our bodies. That may be noticing a pounding heart, dizziness, shaking, sweating etc.

Panic attacks are extremely unpleasant and can be very frightening. As a result, people who experience repeated panic attacks often become very worried about having another attack and may make changes to their lifestyle to avoid having panic attacks. For example, avoiding exercise to keep their heart rate low, or avoiding certain places.

Panic attacks tend to follow a similar pattern and the CBT way of working with one can be helpful for understanding what happens. Something begins to trigger the sympathetic nervous system which is used for dealing with threats, we can be aware of this trigger or sometimes we may not be aware. Following this, we notice what is physically happening with our bodies. That may be noticing a pounding heart, dizziness, shaking, sweating etc.

Crucially at this stage there is the interpretation phase. In this phase if we make a judgement of what’s happening: I’m having a heart attack, I’m dying, I’m going to faint etc. These erroneous yet seemingly plausible beliefs send a signal back to our nervous system which panics us more and vamps up the physical symptoms.

This happens in a feedback loop and the symptoms usually peak at about 10 minutes into a panic attack. It’s very important to learn to recognize a panic attack and learn to stop its progression. If left untreated a secondary disorder can develop, namely the fear of a possible panic attack.

Symptoms

RAPID HEARTBEAT RESULTING IN THE FEAR OF AN IMPENDING HEART ATTACK. THE FEELINGS ARE INTENSE AND FRIGHTENING.

DEPERSONALIZATION (FEELING LIKE YOU’RE OUTSIDE YOUR BODY)

FEELING OF DOOM, OR THE FEELING AS THOUGH YOU’RE ABOUT TO DIE

EXCESSIVE SWEATING OR HOT/COLD FLUSHES

TROUBLE BREATHING OR LIGHT-HEADEDNESS OR DIZZINESS

SEVERE ANXIETY, ESPECIALLY HEALTH ANXIETY

TINGLING SENSATIONS, NUMBNESS, OR WEAKNESS IN THE BODY

CHEST PAIN OR STOMACH PAIN, POSSIBLY WITH DIGESTIVE PROBLEMS AND/OR DISCOMFORT.

FEELING OF HELPLESSNESS OR FEELING LIKE YOU’RE NO LONGER YOURSELF

Personal Stories

“Panic attacks have felt to me in the past like a shortness of breath and a deep physical discomfort that I’m out of control of my facial expressions, gestures, the way I’m holding myself etc... overall I guess feeling out of control and in a state of fear.”

Anonymous

“It doesn't just creep up on me, I'm just right in the middle of it before I know it and it's kind of too late then. It's hot and feels like I'm going to pass out, and I just need to get out of wherever I currently am. I can normally tell it's a panic attack afterwards because once I've established that I'm "safe" or out of wherever it was that I was, I feel the same – cold sweat, heart beating really fast, and basically a sense that I want to be crying and not visible.”

Anonymous

“I would feel my hands start to tingle and sometimes it would spread to my face. I would get warm quickly and feel like it was difficult to breathe, as if I was wrapped up in a snow suit and scarves and tucked into a sleeping bag. There would feel like there was pressure on my chest and my main thought was 'I need to get out, I can't breathe'. In severe attacks I often didn't realise until I came out of them. They tended to come on in times when there was a build-up of pressure rather than a specific situation. E.g. studying in the library, feeling my chest tighten and the walls closing in and an overwhelming need to escape. I would somehow make my way outside and sit in an open-air area but not realise what had happened until I came out of it.”

Anonymous

Getting Help

PANIC ATTACKS LIKE OTHER ANXIETY-BASED ISSUES COME FROM SOMETHING NOT THREATENING TO LIFE AND LIMB BEING PERCEIVED AS A HUGE THREAT. THIS IS WHAT TRIGGERS THE CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM AND OUR FIGHT OR FLIGHT SO VIOLENTLY.

PSYCHOEDUCATION AROUND PANIC ATTACKS AS WELL AS UNDERSTANDING THE UNDERLYING TRIGGERS THAT START THEM ARE CRUCIAL STEPS IN TERMS OF FIGHTING OFF THESE DEBILITATING AND DISORIENTATING EXPERIENCES. YOUR GOOD THERAPIST WILL BE ABLE TO HELP YOU FIGHT THESE ATTACKS

KNOWING HOW YOUR OWN PANIC ATTACKS FEEL, AS WELL AS UNDERSTANDING THINGS LIKE THAT YOU WON’T FAINT DURING A PANIC ATTACK HELP YOU TO STAY GROUNDED. NOT MAKING THE MISINTERPRETATION IS HUGE IN NOT GETTING OVERWHELMED BY THE ATTACK.

Getting Help

Anxiety Ireland has fully trained counsellors nationwide on standby to assist you in taking back control of these problems. For more information or to arrange a free telephone consultation with one of our team please see our get help section.

Success Stories

“I know everyone's are different as well as what works but CBT was amazing for me as a therapy. And weirdly if I was in a panic if someone I trusted was near, getting a super tight squishy hug from them helped calm me as it made me realise the restriction i was feeling wasn't physical. ( this is deffo not for everyone though!)”

Anonymous

"I have progressed from experiencing anxiety every day, thick depersonalisation, unrelenting fear and wandering thoughts that had to do with everything and anything, to a new me. After time it comes off in layers. Of course, your perception is stuck on you for a while, but it makes too much sense to even question, as all you have been doing is noticing and fearing everything that's been going on"

Anonymous

“I experimented abortively with antidepressants, started psychotherapy, and embarked on a gruelling programme of deliberately going into situations that induced panic attacks on a daily basis to try and inure myself against them. In total it took me four years and two relapses to get to a point where I could go back to work. But it worked. I now travel freely and haven't experienced an acute panic attack for years.”

Anonymous