Anyone who has ever had a panic attack knows how crippling and debilitating they can be. Panic attacks can come on suddenly and for no apparent reason at all. They can be extremely scary and overwhelming.
Symptoms of panic attacks include:
- a racing heartbeat
- feeling faint
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- hot flushes
- shaky limbs
- a choking sensation
- numbness or pins and needles
- dry mouth
- a need to go to the toilet
- ringing in your ears
- a feeling of dread or a fear of dying
- a churning stomach
- a tingling in your fingers
- feeling like you’re not connected to your body
During a panic attack you may feel a sense of losing control. You may even feel that you’re going to pass out, have a heart attack or even die.
Panic attacks tend to last between 5 to 10 minutes, although some people have experienced panic attacks lasting up to an hour.
The frequency of panic attacks will depend on the severity of your condition. Some people have several panic attacks a day, some a few times a week and some only very occasionally.
Although the triggers for panic attacks aren’t always obvious, you may be aware of certain situations or activities that are triggers. Maybe you experience them before attending appointments or when around a particular person or group of people.
There are certain things that will help you when you feel a panic attack coming on.
Try to focus on your breathing. Counting your breaths in and out is helpful. Try to breathe longer on the outbreath than on the inbreath. Count 4 when breathing in. Try to hold the air in your lungs for 4 seconds. Then count to 6 as you slowly breathe out. This is a physical and emotionally helpful technique as it increases the level of oxygen and helps you to relax.
Try to distract yourself. Grounding techniques help to turn the attention away from the distressing thoughts behind the panic attack. They help you to refocus on the present moment and ultimately to relax.
The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a mindfulness grounding technique that will help you to calm down when you feel a panic attack coming on. It focusses on your five senses and really using those five senses to immerse yourself on what is going on around you and away from the distressing thought patterns.
First of all, look for 5 things that you can see. Look for details, something a little unusual, something you wouldn’t notice normally. What five things can you see around you?
What 4 things can you feel? Notice how your clothing feels against your body, the warmth of the sun or coolness of the wind on your face. How do your feet feel against the floor or how does your body feel against your armchair? What 4 things can you feel?
What 3 things can you hear? What has your mind tuned out? Maybe cars or voices in the distance, birds singing, children laughing. Maybe you can hear a ticking clock? What 3 things can you hear?
What 2 things you can smell? Maybe a candle, an air freshener, or mown grass. Maybe you can smell something cooking or someone’s aftershave or perfume. What 2 things can you smell?
What 1 thing can you taste? For this step you could carry sweets or chewing gum or mints. Pop it in and notice the taste. What thing can you taste?
Practise this technique when you can so that you are ready with it when you feel a panic attack starting to come on.
Another useful grounding technique is to challenge yourself to think of films, or football teams or your favourite actors. Something that you can list that holds your interest. Cities, countries, animals, fruits, anything works. Try to list in your mind as many as you can. Keep doing this until you run out of ideas then move on to another subject. You could vary this by trying to list the items in alphabetical order. This is another grounding technique which will distract your mind from the anxiety thoughts and will calm you down.
After you have had a panic attack, it is important that you practise self care and give your body what it needs to recover. You may need to lie down or rest, maybe you need to eat or drink something. Listen to what your body is telling you and be kind to yourself.
Panic attacks can be part of a bigger overall mental health condition, such as panic disorder or generalised anxiety disorder. It is important that you seek professional support from your GP if you are experiencing panic attacks.
Counselling, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is very effective for treating the symptoms and the underlying causes of panic attacks