What is a panic attack?
Medical definition – “a panic attack is a sudden rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms.”
Claire definition – it’s like having liquid terror injected into your veins. You can’t think straight and feel as though you’re either going to die or lose your mind. It’s bloody horrible!
Common physical symptoms – these are by far the most distressing aspect of an attack
- Difficulty breathing – as though a weight has been placed on your chest
- Rapid heartbeat – like a hummingbird on speed
- Dry mouth
- Stomach cramps
- Instant diarrhea – or nervous pooing as I call it
- Blushing – beetroot style
- Heavy/numb limbs – you feel as though you can’t move your arms/legs/mouth properly
So if you have any of the above, then good news it’s completely normal!
Common emotional symptoms
- A feeling of pure terror and fear
- Distress bordering on hysteria, often accompanied by fits of crying
- Highly irritable and angry
Common mental symptoms/negative thoughts
- What is happening to me?
- Why can’t I calm down?
- Oh my God I’m going to have a heart attack or a stroke
- I think I’m losing my mind, I’ll end up in an asylum
- I’m going to humiliate myself in front of all these people
- I’m going to faint
- I’m going to piss myself
- Everyone will think that I’m a freak
In my opinion, panic attacks are one of the most brutal things that anyone can experience.
Why do they happen?
When you look at things from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense. Humans are the dominant species because amongst other things we have an acute and highly developed defence system, otherwise known as the ‘fight flight or freeze’ response. Picture this scene, a cave man is walking along minding his own business, when suddenly a T Rex approaches (yes I realise than humans and dinosaurs didn’t exist at the same time, but I prefer this analogy)! The caveman’s brain springs into action and triggers the Amygdala, otherwise known as the brain’s fire alarm. Our caveman needs to act quickly to avoid being eaten. He can either fight the T Rex (not advisable unless he’s a superhero), or run away as fast as he can. Immediately the brain floods the body with masses of adrenalin. This is super fuel that will temporarily give him the strength and energy he needs to react.
It’s a genius system don’t you think? The brain recognises a threat and the body deals with said threat in a matter of seconds.
Unfortunately the world changed faster than our brains could evolve. When once we would be afraid of a dinosaur or lion, we now worry about stressful meetings or being on a crowded train. Sensing our anxiety the brain reacts as it would do to any threat and switches on our defence mode.
The problem is, we can’t exactly run away from a meeting or fight everyone on the train!
So what happens?
- We stay still and ignore the feeling of panic. We try and fight it off with thoughts like “stop being stupid, you’re fine!”
- Believing that we’re in danger, the amygdala is horrified by our lack of response and floods the body with even more adrenalin.
- Our lack of action increases the physical symptoms
- We feel distressed because we don’t understand what is happening
- These feelings of panic triggers the amygdala once more and the whole cycle begins again
Talk about a nightmare!
But do not fret, it’s all ok. First let me start by rationalising some of those physical symptoms that are so scary.
- Pounding heart – it’s just excess adrenalin, the brain thinks that you need more energy to survive the dangerous situation.
- Nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea – during a moment of survival the digestive system is not needed and therefore shuts down. The brain also attempts to flush everything out to make the body lighter. Talk about a rapid cleanse!
- Sweating – makes the skin slippery so that predators will struggle to grab hold of us.
- Heavy/numb limbs – to avoid massive blood loss from a cut or slash, the veins retreat further into the muscles, causing a numb sensation.
It’s fascinating stuff huh?!
How to deal with a panic attack
It’s all very well explaining what panic attacks are, but that doesn’t really help when you’re in the grips of one. So below are a few things that have helped me. I’m afraid there’s no quick fix, (typical). But trust me, it’s better to build solid foundations as these will really help in the long run.
- During an attack the first instinct that most people have is to ‘flee the situation.’ Don’t worry, this doesn’t make you a weak person, it’s completely normal. To a certain extent it’s true, leaving the situation will make you feel instantly better. However, it’s actually the worst thing that you can do, because you’re effectively reinforcing to your brain that it was right to trigger an attack because you were in danger.
- Can a panic attack hurt you? NO – this is a common myth. All that it can do is make you feel incredibly uncomfortable and distressed, but it cannot harm you or make you go insane. Remember that, it’s important.
- First of all, try and accept what is happening and embrace the attack. Do not fight it off because you will always lose and this will only prolong the discomfort. How do you accept it? Mentally say to yourself “ok I’m having a panic attack and that’s ok. It’s horrible and scary, but it cannot hurt me. I can deal with this.”
- Do not flee the situation. Don’t do anything drastic whatsoever no matter how strong the urge. Panic temporarily robs us of our ability to think straight, so it’s better to wait for a few minutes until it peaks. Remind yourself that you’re not trapped and can leave if you really want to, but try and remain where you are for a few more minutes.
- Belly breathing. This will double the amount of oxygen in the body and open the lungs. It will help to steady your breathing. Click here for a video demonstration.
- Stay in the real world. The desire to constantly assess your thoughts and feed the panic will be overwhelming, but try to shift your focus onto what you were doing before the attack began. If you’re in a meeting then take notes and ask questions, or if you’re in the corner shop buy milk and chat to the cashier. This will communicate to your amygdala that everything is ok and there is no need for defence. It’s not easy, but it works.
- Tell someone. I’m not suggesting that you blurt out in a crowded room, “help me I’m freaking out!” But if you can quietly say to a friend or someone you trust that you’re having a panic attack it will instantly ease the burden of dealing with it alone. Ask them to distract you with a game or interesting conversation. If I can’t talk to someone I will text one of my friends or boyfriend.
- Exercise – again, please don’t start running around a supermarket! But after the attack has peaked a brisk walk will help to burn off the excess adrenalin.
- Laughter is very effective too. If you can ask someone to tell you a funny story or listen to a podcast (Karl Pilkington is great) this will help to diffuse the panic.
- Remember the attack will eventually end, because everything does and if it starts up again then that is fine too. You WILL be ok.
- When it has finished be kind to yourself. Think something encouraging such as “that was really scary, but I dealt with it. I’m so proud of ME.” Then treat yourself to something nice. Also bank this experience as you can use it during any future attacks e.g. “I dealt with it last time and I CAN do it again, i’m stronger than I think.”
Slightly unorthodox tips
Disclaimer: These work for me, but I am in no way encouraging anyone to try them if they don’t feel comfortable, or have been advised against doing so by a doctor.
- A hot toddy – after the attack has peaked I sometimes indulge in this drink. Ingredients consist of: Hot water, lemon, a good splodge of honey and a shot of whiskey (brandy or rum will also be fine.) The alcohol helps to take the edge off and the heat and sweetness is comforting.
- Nytol – again this can take the edge off an attack if you’re really struggling. Always read the dosage directions carefully. Obviously do not take while you’re at work as it may make you feel drowsy. These should be used only when necessary.
- Diazepam (Valium) – only to be taken in extreme circumstances. One tablet will dull the attack significantly but it will also make you drowsy enough to fall asleep. These tablets can be addictive and should only be used when absolutely necessary. For example, I last took one when I was going through a difficult time and just needed a bit of help to rest.
Fear of the fear
Ironically after the first panic attack most people fear the return of the attack itself, rather than the situation that they were originally in. This is when the concept of being afraid of feeling afraid occurs. Again don’t worry as this is completely normal. Nobody likes to feel scared, it’s an undesirable sensation. In contrast, after laughing and feeling happy you wouldn’t think “oh my God, what if I feel happy again?” Happiness is pleasant whereas fear isn’t.
So the good news is if you catch yourself thinking this way then you’re already aware of the ‘trick’ that panic can pull. It’s ok to feel afraid because if/when it happens again you WILL be able to deal with it.
I promise you, the more that you experience panic attacks the easier they are to deal with. It takes time and effort on your part, but it can be done.
A big shout out to all those who suffer, I truly feel your pain and I’m so sorry that this is happening to you. Remember, you’re so much stronger than you think and you WILL get through this. You’re not alone, I’m right there with you.
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Categories: Panic Attacks