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What is a Panic Attack?
A Panic Attack is a distinct episode of anxiety where the individual is fearful of their own physical sensations. The onset is sudden and the duration relatively short. During a panic attack symptoms of anxiety are severe, intense and overwhelming, so much so that many people end up in A&E fearing that they are having a heart attack. The term Panic Disorder is used when people either experience recurrent panic attacks or when they develop a constant fear of developing a panic attack and this fear is interfering with their ability to do everyday things.
Panic attacks can come “out of the blue”, leaving the individual very vulnerable. They can be triggered by a range of stimuli. For one person a panic attack might start when they are on a crowded train on their commute home.
The sensation of being in a crowded space might make them feel as though they can’t breathe or move, triggering a full scale panic attack. For someone else, a trigger could be finding themselves all alone in a large, empty space, or being faced with the need to make an important decision very quickly.
The symptoms of a Panic Attack can be divided in to 3 categories:
Caused by adrenalin released into the blood stream, physical symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
Pins and needles
During an initial panic attack people experience these physical symptoms (which can be extremely intense and unpleasant) and misinterpret them in a catastrophic manner. Hence, they might believe they are having a heart attack, losing control, going mad, going to fainting, collapse or suffocate, or not able to cope and embarrass themselves in front of others. These are made worse if the person anticipates that will not be able to escape a situation.
When a person feels this uncomfortable, they understandably want to protect themselves from their catastrophic interpretations (of physical symptoms of anxiety) and will often start to check in with their body to see how they are feeling, have an urge to escape from the situation, avoid situations which may provoke these feelings e.g.supermarkets, public transport, or anywhere people gather; or they will do things that they believe make is feel better e.g. carrying water, taking rescue remedy, being on the lookout for escape routes, loosening clothing and trying to distract themselves. As a result of this, they tend to feel safe only in a very restricted world, and to be immensely anxious about when the next panic attack will come.
How common are Panic Attacks/Panic Disorder?
Occasional Panic Attacks triggered by high levels of stress are experienced by 10% of the population. 1% of the populations suffer from Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder is twice as common in woman as in men and usually develops in a person’s early twenties.
What is the treatment for Panic Attacks/Panic Disorder?
The guidelines produced by NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) as the most effective psychological treatment to treat Panic Disorder, with the longest duration of effect. You will learn to:
Identify your triggers for panic
Recognise and manage the difficult emotions that lead to the attack
Take a closer look at the types of thoughts and thinking styles that might contribute to anxiety about panic symptoms
Gently confront the things you are avoiding so that you can start to feel less anxious of the symptoms of a panic attack
Identify the underlying cause, and address the deep-rooted problem behind the attacks