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How to Manage Panic Attacks

Updated: 4 days ago


What are panic attacks?


A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions in non-threatening situations (Mayo Clinic, 2018)


It’s characterized by at least 4 of the following symptoms (2020):

  • racing or pounding heart

  • sweating

  • shaking or trembling

  • shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered

  • feeling of choking

  • chest pain or discomfort

  • chills or hot flashes

  • nausea or upset stomach

  • dizziness or light-headedness

  • a sense of things being unreal or feeling detached from oneself

  • numbness or tingling sensations

  • fear of losing control or “going crazy”

  • fear of dying

What is the difference between anxiety and panic attacks?

Anxiety is distinguished from a panic attack in that it includes symptoms such as apprehension and worry, but without the extreme fear and sense of detachment that occurs during a panic attack (Ankrom, 2021).


What causes panic attacks?


There is no known cause for panic attacks. However, these risk factors can increase the likelihood of having a panic attack (Mayo Clinic, 2018) :

  • Family history of panic attacks or panic disorder

  • Major life stress, such as the death or serious illness of a loved one

  • A traumatic event, such as sexual assault or a serious accident

  • Major changes in your life, such as a divorce or the addition of a baby

  • Smoking or excessive caffeine intake

  • History of childhood physical or sexual abuse

  • Substance abuse

How can I support myself or others when having a panic attack?

The ideal option would be to seek help from mental health professionals. However, this is not always feasible (i.e due to financial shortcomings). Hence, symptoms of anxiety attack can be managed through the following ways:


1. Educate Yourself: A good way to help yourself or someone else is to educate yourself about the different ways the attack can manifest itself to be able to identify it in the first place (NIH, 2022).



2. Communicate: The most important thing is to be able to communicate to others when you are having an attack and be honest about how they can be of assistance. Most often individuals reach out to those that they trust (NIH, 2022).


3. Avoid ‘self-talk’ that focuses your attention on your symptoms – don’t tell yourself to ‘Stop panicking!’ or ‘Relax!’ Instead focus on accepting the reality by acknowledging that you are having a panic attack and it will subside (Better Health, 2020).


4. Take slow deep breaths: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you breathe in, feel your stomach fill with air. Hold the breath for four seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds. This help slow down the breath and connect with your body, which will calm you down (Vandergriendt, 2021).


5. If focusing on your body sensations is not helpful, try connection/grounding yourself with your environment. For example, counting backwards from 100, listing 3 things you can see, hear, feel, and taste, or try connecting face to face with a family/friend that you trust (Better Health, 2020).




Written by: Saniya Nagpal

Year III, Honors Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour

McMaster University

 

References


Ankrom, S. (2021, December 2). What is the difference between panic and anxiety attacks? Verywell Mind. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-attacks-versus-panic-attacks-2584396



Better Health. (2020). Panic attack. Panic attack - Better Health Channel. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/panic-attack#self-help-suggestions



Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018, May 4). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021


Panic disorder. Anxiety Canada. (2020, August 6). Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://www.anxietycanada.com/disorders/panic-disorder/



U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022). Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms



Vandergriendt, C. (2021, October 19). What's the difference between a panic attack and an anxiety attack? Healthline. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from

https://www.healthline.com/health/panic-attack-vs-anxiety-attack#home-remedies




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