Sweats and chills, shortness of breath, feeling a loss of control, dizziness, and a racing heart – if these symptoms sound familiar, you may be experiencing something called a panic attack. We can help.
What Is A Panic Attack?
One in 4 people will experience one or more panic episodes in their lifetime. While there are some genetic factors, experiencing a panic attack is normal and not a sign that you are weak or lesser than others.
According to Lifeline:
“A panic attack is a sudden and intense feeling of terror without the presence of danger. Panic attacks are usually brief and frightening while they last. Sometimes there is a specific trigger, while at other times they seem to come out of the blue. While panic sensations are a natural response to danger, panic attacks are usually out of proportion to any actual danger you might be facing.”
Human beings are naturally wired to respond to stress and life-endangering events. Our sympathetic nervous system releases energy to prepare the body for action (fight-or-flight response). Once the danger is over, our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to stabilise the body.
When the parasympathetic nervous system fails to do its job, a person will continue to feel a heightened sense of physiological sensations (sweats, heart palpitations, faintness) characteristic of a panic attack.
When panic attacks are experienced frequently, they are called a panic disorder.
In extreme circumstances, a person who experiences more than one panic attack may develop a lifestyle in avoidance to their panic triggers. This prevents them from leaving their safety of their room or home due to their constant fear and worry of experiencing another panic attack.
What Does A Panic Attack Feel Like?
People have described their panic attacks as being:
- Physical sensations of nausea, passing out, numbness or tingling, faint, a pounding heart, shaking, sudden sweating, chest pain.
- Feeling as though they are going crazy or dying from a heart attack, stroke, or choking.
- Feeling detached from reality.
- Feeling as though they have lost all control of their body and emotions.
Panic attacks are serious, however, an individual panic attack will not kill you despite feeling it will do so.
How To Subdue A Panic Episode In 9 Steps
Here is something you can try to treat the pre-described symptoms,
It is a series of simple breathing techniques aimed at helping your body override its natural fight-or-flight response (nervous system).
The following may be performed sitting down, standing up, or lying down. You can do this whilst on a crowded commute into work, when you’re in bed, during a stressful work meeting, or basically in any situation where it is safe to switch your attention to yourself for a few minutes.
To feel less panicky, do the following:
- With your nose, take a slow and deep breath.
- Then exhale with your mouth. It make take a few rounds of breathing to slow your inhale and exhale cycle – this is totally normal.
- If it is safe to do so, close your eyes with the next inhale.
- Repeat this 5 times (keep your eyes closed for the duration of this exercise – if appropriate).
- Again, through your nose, take a deep and slow breath but this time, do it over the course of 7 seconds.
- Then hold your breath for 3 seconds.
- Like before, exhale with your mouth but this time, exhale over the course of 7 seconds.
- Repeat this slow inhale, hold, and exhale process for 10 cycles or until you begin to feel better.
This simple breathing exercise is effective because when you are feeling stressed, your breathing pattern changes. When we feel anxious, out natural physiological response is to breathe too much in short shallow bursts.
This fight-or-flight response causes an imbalance in oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. As a result, your heart races, your muscle tenses, and you may experience dizziness and other physical sensations. This then fuels your existing feelings of panic and/or anxiety.
The above abdominal breathing exercise makes you conscious of how you are breathing.
For most people, drawing out their exhale is what allows their body to relax and calm down. This is due to how breathing out is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. And this is the main reason why this breathing technique is effective for calming your nerves.
Are Panic Attacks Common In Children?
We still do not fully understand why panic attacks occur. This is because a panic attack can happen for no apparent reason.
Panic attacks usually begins in adulthood. While uncommon, children of all ages may experience a panic attack.
How Does A Panic Attack Differ From Anxiety?
You will come across quite a few mentions of ‘anxiety attack’ on the Internet. The term ‘anxiety attack’ is not a medically recognised term and it can mean different things.
When it comes to your mental wellbeing, being specific helps health professionals such as a general practitioner, cognitive behavioural therapist, or clinical psychologist to diagnosis and manage your symptoms effectively.
Whilst some symptoms can be similar (e.g., rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness), panic and anxiety are two very different things.
For starters, a panic attack has a very sudden onset and the symptoms are extreme. Within seconds, you may experience chest pain, trembling, and feel disconnected from your reality. Anxiety, however, tends to gradually build up across time. You may find yourself worrying excessively and feel an intensifying amount anxiety across days and weeks. Unlike panic attacks, anxiety symptoms tend to feel less intense but the symptoms may be persistent for longer periods of time (days, weeks or even months).
In summary, a panic attack is different to anxiety in their intensity of symptoms and the length of time that the symptoms present themselves.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal and expected reaction to stress.
- Students will often feel anxious before an exam.
- Going to a social event where you don’t know anyone can make you feel anxious.
- Fear of having your lie revealed in front of others will make you highly anxious.
- Not knowing how you will pay your bills will most definitely give you anxiety.
- Even dating can trigger feelings of anxiety.
As you can see, these are all very normal life events and these common stressors can act as anxiety triggers.
If Feeling Anxious Is Normal, When Does It Become A Clinical Disorder?
Anxiety is formally diagnosed as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) after meeting these specific criteria from the DSM-V:
- The presence of excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of topics, events, or activities. Worry occurs more often than not for at least 6 months and is clearly excessive.
- The worry is experienced as very challenging to control.
- The anxiety and worry is accompanied with at least three of the following physical or cognitive symptoms (only 1 symptom is necessary to diagnose GAD in children):
- Tiring easily
- Impaired concentration or feeling as though the mind goes blank
- Edginess or restlessness
- Difficult sleeping
- Increased muscle aches or soreness
A health practitioner will use standardised assessment tools, the above diagnostic criteria, and their clinical judgement to make a diagnosis of anxiety-related disorder.
How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?
The World Health Organisation estimates that 1 in 13 people (7.69% of global populate) have an anxiety disorder. This means that there are more than half a billion people living with a highly treatable mental illness.
What does this mean for you?
If you are experiencing prolonged anxiety, you are not alone. It is common for people with an anxiety disorder to feel isolated and misunderstood. The good news is that anxiety can be effectively managed with the right type of guidance from a health professional.
How Do I Calm My Anxious Child?
Anxiety and panic share some common symptoms. When your child is experiencing a panic attack or is feeling particularly anxious, follow these steps.
- Be calm yourself. It’s not about you.
- Acknowledge that their feelings are real instead of punishing/shaming them for how they feel.
- Practice chest breathing together to encourage their parasympathetic nervous system to do its thing.
- Tell them that you are there for them by saying, “I am here for you.”
- Give them a long hug (20+ seconds).
Does Anxiety Require Treatment?
Constant worrying and avoidance behaviour can be very disabling to your everyday life. Since the practice of psychology is evidence-based, there are strict guidelines to facilitate effective diagnosis of people with anxiety. Unfortunately, terminology such as mental health, mental illness, and mental disorders come with a lot of societal stigma.
One of the barriers to getting the help you need is the language that surrounds anxiety and other mental health presentations. This is because most people dislike being labelled with a disorder such as GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) and will actively avoid seeking professional help and diagnose.
Sadly, only one-third of people experience an anxiety disorder receive treatment.
Being told that you have a mental illness is a burden nobody wants to shoulder. Ironically, the diagnosis is necessary to prescribe an appropriate action plan to help you maintain a healthy quality of life.
It is a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety.
A teenager may experience anxiety in the lead up to their exams and upon release of their academic results. They may also feel anxious prior to asking someone out to be their boyfriend/girlfriend.
According to Beyond Blue, one in fourteen young Australians aged 4-17 experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. This is equivalent to approximately 278,000 young people.
An adult may experience anxiety in the workplace (e.g., being late to an important meeting, in the lead up to a workplace evaluation) and in their relationships (e.g., having sex with a new partner).
Feelings of anxiety are perfectly normal. Only when the anxiety is persistent, uncontrollable and excessive does it warrant professional attention.
I Am Anxious All The Time – What Should I Do?
The first thing to do is remind yourself that anxiety is a normal response to stress and stress is a daily part of our personal and professional lives.
It’s OK to feel anxious. But at the same time, avoiding anxiety and distracting yourself will often make things worse.
Therefore, if you are feeling anxious all the time and you believe that it is getting in the way of your relationships, ability to perform at work, and in your quality of life, you should definitely do something about it.
Your anxiety symptoms can be alleviated with a few simple exercises/techniques. These include breathing exercises, mindfulness awareness exercises, self-safe hypnosis, and progressive muscle relaxation.
Physical exercise such as going for a walk, hitting the weights or doing high intensity interval training at the gym, and yoga and tai chi are effective ways to release repressed emotions. These forms of physical exercise has been shown to help calm your mind. Many people report that they feel as though they have gained perspective post-workout.
When symptoms of anxiety persist over a long period of time, there may be a deeper cause for your anxiety. For example, your constant feelings of anxiousness may stem from unresolved issues within your relationship, or feelings of dissatisfaction with your job or career. It is recommended that you talk to a mental health professional such as a psychologist or a qualified counsellor to help find a solution to your anxiety.
I Think My Partner Has Anxiety – What Should I Do?
People with anxiety often know that they are feeling anxious all the time. As you will know, different people react differently to personal feedback and when it comes to addressing anxiety, quite often, partners can aggravate the situation despite their good intentions.
Here are a few tips to show that you care and are empathetic to their feelings of anxiety:
- Acknowledge their anxiety – people who suffer from anxiety tend to feel supported when you acknowledge how they feel. Many partners make the mistake of making assumptions and being dismissive. At the same time, if you think your has partner but they do not, resist the urge to diagnose them.
- Be an active listener – the best way to be a supportive partner is not solve their problems (or fix them), but rather, be present when they share how they feel. By listening to what your partner is saying you can build up their willingness to open up in a safe and judgement-free environment.
- Resist the urge to make judgementative comments – we tend to be hardest with those we love most. Telling your partner to “just relax” or questioning their feelings will often make their anxiety even worse. Instead, be an active listener. It may be worthwhile for you to see a psychologist yourself so that you may better understand how you feel about your partner’s anxiety so that you may be a better supportive partner at home.
- Encourage them to seek professional help – finding the right psychologist for your partner may take a considerable amount of appointments to see different professionals. This process may take months and can be frustrating. What matters is that your partner understands why they are seeking professional help and that you are supportive throughout the process.
How Do Psychologists Treat Anxiety?
The treatment outcomes for anxiety are very positive through counselling sessions with an experienced psychologist. This is because psychologists have experience in understanding human behaviour and can assist in identifying emotional triggers. By doing this, psychologists can provide you with practical solutions to address the underlying issue so that they do not keep coming back.
As the practice of psychology is an evidence-based one, many psychologists will employ psychoeducation and cognitive behavioural therapy to treat people with anxiety.
Psychoeducation is a process where a psychologist helps you understand the nature of anxiety so that you are no longer afraid of it.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is based on the reduction and elimination of anxiety symptoms. CBT has been shown to be highly effective in the short-term. Research indicates that over 60% of people who undergo CBT experience substantial improvements in anxiety symptoms. It is also the best long-term treatment for anxiety as CBT teaches you skills that you can apply on-demand.
The Next Steps
At New Vision Psychology, we recognise that anxiety is is a serious matter. Due to social stigma, many people do not seek the help that they need to improve their quality of life. As psychologists and counsellors, we know that with the right support and mindset, anxiety can be effectively managed.
If you or someone that you care about has anxiety, we are always available. You can reach us on 1300 001 778 or book an appointment.
Did you know that all Australians can access the Better Access initiative where you can receive up to 10 Medicare-subsidised counselling sessions? All you will need to access this is to get a Mental Health Treatment Plan from your GP.
Are you looking for this information for a work colleague? New Vision Psychology has a flexible and affordable EAP service.