Someone having a panic attack experiences a sudden and intense sensation of fear. They may feel they have lost control and feel desperate to get out of the situation that has triggered their anxiety (link to anxiety). Symptoms of panic attack include:
- rapid breathing
- feeling breathless
- feeling very hot or cold
- feeling sick
- feeling faint or dizzy
- tingling fingers
- shivering or shaking
- racing heart or irregular heartbeat (palpitations).
The problem may get worse if over-breathing sets in because this triggers sensations such as confusion, cramps, pains and feelings of weakness. The symptoms of a severe panic attack can be quite similar to a heart attack and someone experiencing one may be convinced they are going to die.
To someone having a panic attack, an activity that other people consider simple may seem impossible.
Many people who regularly experience panic attacks seem to be helped by learning to breathe calmly when an attack feels near.
An acute panic attack often subsides if you breathe in and out into a paper bag. This allows you to re-breathe your own carbon dioxide, allowing the acidity in the blood that is upset by over-breathing to return to normal. This removes many of the strange sensations that panic causes.
For some people, just knowing that their panic is caused by a vicious circle of fear and physical sensations can help calm them down.
The Mental Health Foundation has produced a range of well-being podcasts that can help you relax and improve your sense of well-being: http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help-information/podcasts/
Talking treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, can help you rethink the meanings you attach to changes in your body. For example, you may need to recognise that a fast pulse could be due to running upstairs or drinking too much coffee, rather than interpreting symptoms in a catastrophic way (eg. I’m going to die, or I’m going to faint).
This kind of rethinking is achieved through demonstrations by the therapist and through activities you practice at home.