What is panic?
Everyone experiences panic from time to time. Perhaps you’ve just realised you’ve lost something important, you have a close call whilst driving or you find yourself in an emergency situation. Panic is a valid response in circumstances like these and will usually subside fairly quickly. However, panic attacks can be more intense and long-lasting, may appear out of nowhere and can have a real impact on day to day life.
Am I having a panic attack?
Recognising a panic attack isn’t always as easy as you might think. This is because it can arrive out of nowhere and the symptoms can be very intense and frightening, making it hard to believe that it’s not something more serious like a heart attack. The good news is that, whilst scary, panic attacks are common, not dangerous and rarely a sign of more serious mental or physical health issues. However, it’s important to see a GP in order to rule out or treat any other causes. Here are a few common emotional, physical and behavioural symptoms to help you identify whether you suffer from panic attacks:
- Body: Increased heart rate, skipping heart rate, tight chest or chest pain, heart seems to momentarily stop, shortness of breath, increased breathing, yawning, pounding sensation in your head, dizziness, faintness, strange tingling sensations.
- Feelings: Terror, feeling of being detached, things don’t seem real, anxiety.
- Thoughts: I’m going to be sick, I’m out of control, I’m going to faint, I’m having a heart attack, I can’t breathe, I’m going crazy, I have to escape.
- Behaviours: Calling emergency services believing you need medical attention, take preventative measures such as gulping for extra air or lying down, trying to escape your situation as fast as possible, beginning to avoid situations that make you anxious or you think might cause a panic attack.
Why do we have panic attacks?
Panic is an extreme form of fear. It is part of our automatic ‘fight or flight’ response which causes us to tense up, take in more oxygen and raise our heart rate in preparation to either escape a dangerous situation or put up a fight. However, this alarm system was designed back when humans regularly faced perils that required fight or flight, such as the threat of predators. Meanwhile, panic attacks often happen as a result of situations where this is no real physical threat, such as financial worries, divorce or work problems. Therefore, the panic response is frightening and unhelpful and is simply our alarm system going into overdrive.
Sometimes panic attacks can be linked to other mental health problems, such as PTSD or OCD. Other times they occur during a period of ill health, such as alongside viruses that cause dizziness, asthma or sleep disorders. Pent up emotions or worries that have gone unexpressed can also be a cause of panic attacks. However, they can also happen completely out of the blue, with little or no discernible trigger.
As we’ve already learnt, panic attacks can have a big impact on our mind and body. When we start to experience a panic attack, we might feel as though our heart has skipped a beat, or that we can’t breathe. This can then lead to the idea that something is really wrong, which can lead to even more stress and panic. This then worsens the symptoms… and so a vicious circle forms! Furthermore, it’s easy to get into a cycle where you believe you’re going to have a panic attack in a certain situation. Therefore, on encountering the situation, you’re already worrying about panicking which can trigger the panic attack you’re trying to avoid. It’s really easy to get caught in a vicious circle of panic attacks. However, there are plenty of ways we can learn to tackle and manage our responses.
Understanding how panic attacks work and how they affect us is the first step in learning how to tackle them and break the vicious circle.