Anyone who has ever had a panic attack has my heartfelt sympathy. They are awful to experience and can cause a lot of worry and extra stress until their cause is sorted and a solution found. Panic attacks can include some or all of the symptoms listed* :

 

  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Choking feelings and pressure in the neck area
  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Nausea or stomach pain
  • Feelings of hot and cold
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Tingling in the fingers
  • Feeling like you are ‘out of this world’
  • Fear of dying or going crazy

Panic attacks can come ‘out of the blue’, or can be associated with a particular traumatic event. Panic attacks activate the ‘fight or flight’ response in the body, which prepares the body for danger. The body is flooded with adrenaline, and many other hormonal and muscular changes occur. The symptoms can last anything from 10 to about 90 minutes, but you could feel unwell for some hours afterwards due to the adrenaline in your system.

As you can see from the list, some of the symptoms are similar to those of someone having a heart attack. That is why if you experience a group of these symptoms for the first time you MUST get checked out by a GP or Ambulance personnel to make sure you are not seriously ill.
Once you have ruled out heart attack, you need to look for any other possible causes;

  • Traumatic event (sometimes recent, sometimes from long ago)
  • Hormonal changes (panic attacks are more common in women, sorry)
  • Thyroid problems
  • Middle ear problems

The other tricky thing about panic attacks is once you have had one, you can associate the place you had them with the fear of having another panic attack, and so create a vicious cycle, where you start to avoid that particular place (it could the supermarket or while driving). Some people develop difficulties in leaving their homes for fear of having a panic attack.

You might not ever be able to pinpoint the cause of panic attacks. The important thing, after making sure you are not seriously ill, is to learn how to manage them effectively. Abdominal breathing is THE most important way of managing panic attacks. Google ‘abdominal breathing’ and follow the instructions or get a trained therapist to show you.

You might want to access some therapy, in order to learn relaxation skills for mind and body. Massage and acupuncture can help, and you might want to look at herbal remedies – talk to your local health shop. Dietary changes may need to be made (caffeine can become a no- no, as can alcohol or cannabis). Exercise is a must and should be included in the development of your personal plan to reduce stress in your life (and bust those panic attacks).
If panic symptoms persist and begin to affect your quality of life, you might want to consider medication in addition to the other remedies suggested. Talk to your GP or Mental Health Co-ordinator.


Margaretanne Roger
Clinical Psychologist

* Symptom list adapted from original material supplied by Mental Health Foundation for Everybody.co.nz