What is a panic attack? The signs and symptoms to look out for

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  • Have you ever felt an intense rush of fear and overwhelmedness? Did your heartbeat go into overdrive, with your palms starting to sweat, your chest hurting, and struggling to catch your breath?

    If you answered yes to the above, it’s very possible that you have experienced a panic attack. And it’s best you know about common¬†panic attack symptoms so that you can better recognise and control them next time.

    What is a panic attack?

    A panic attack is a sudden ‘flight or fight’ sensation of anxiety which causes you to experience severe psychological and physical symptoms.

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    They can overwhelm the body and the mind, making them extremely frightening for the sufferer.

    Panic attack symptoms

    • Heart palpitations
    • Sweating
    • Shaking or trembling
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Choking
    • Chest pain
    • Nausea
    • Feeling like you’ve lost control
    • Feeling faint
    • Feeling disconnected from your body
    • Fearing that you are having a heart attack or going to die

    Panic attacks come on very suddenly and last for approximately 5-20 minutes. Whilst there is no immediate danger to the person experiencing a panic attack, they are very unpleasant and stressful.

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    The frequency of panic attacks varies from person to person – it is possible to experience one and then never have a panic attack again, but for others, they can become a regular monthly or even weekly occurrence.

    What causes a panic attack?

    As with many mental health conditions, the causes of panic attacks are not certain. However, potential factors are thought to include:

    • Genetics
    • An imbalance of chemicals in the brain
    • Traumatic life events, either in early life or recently
    • A carbon dioxide sensitivity – scientists believe this is related to the breathlessness experienced during a panic attack

    Some people find they are able to identify triggers for their attacks at times of extreme stress, but some experience them totally at random.

    Coping with panic attack symptoms

    Focus on your breathing

    One of the most important things is to get your breathing regulated again. Take long, deep breaths through the nose and exhale through your mouth.

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    You may find it useful to focus on a particular word or phrase to calm you as you breathe.

    Remind yourself of the facts

    A panic attack is a scary experience, and you may feel that you’re at risk of harm, or even death.

    During these times, it’s crucial to remember that a panic attack cannot cause heart failure, cannot stop you from breathing altogether, and cannot make you lose control. It feels that way now, but the feeling will pass.

    Be aware of situations that may induce anxiety

    For example: if you’ve had a panic attack in an exercise class before, don’t give up on the exercise completely. Take a friend for support, and choose a spot where you don’t feel exposed, or if you don’t feel comfortable working out in public yet, try a home workout routine until you feel more confident.

    Avoiding difficult situations merely increases your fear, but there’s no shame in building up to them at your own pace, or modifying them to reduce your panic.

    Don’t fear your next attack

    Worrying about when you might experience a panic attack can heighten your levels of anxiety, making an attack more likely.

    Reducing stress and relaxing as much as possible can lower the chances of experiencing a panic attack and make them easier to manage if they do occur.

    The NHS advises that you should see your doctor about a panic attack if they continue for more than 20 minutes, you feel unwell even after your breathing returns to normal, you still have an irregular heartbeat of chest pains, or if your attacks become a regular occurrence, as this is often an indicator of panic disorder. They may prescribe antidepressants, counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.