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Panic attacks

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What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an intense feeling of anxiety that becomes overwhelming. Someone suffering from a panic attack may experience heart palpitations, faintness, difficulty breathing, sweating, or sickness. They may feel like they are dying or having a heart attack. They may even pass out. Panic attacks generally come on quickly (often without warning) and will last between about 5 and 20 minutes.

Why do panic attacks happen?

Anxiety is a natural and very necessary state for human beings. When someone gets into a potentially dangerous situation they have to decide very quickly how to stay safe in order to survive. It may be that they need to run away or protect themselves so the body gets ready for action: this is known as the ‘fight or flight reflex’. The moment you realise that you could be in danger, your body starts producing adrenalin, raising your heartbeat and increasing your breathing speed. You begin to sweat and you may feel extremely alert or sensitive.

If you were to find yourself face-to-face with a hungry bear, the ability to run away very quickly is definitely helpful. However, evolution has put us in a position where this is not a likely scenario and the things we feel most anxious about now are stressful for different reasons. For example, you may feel anxious about speaking in public, sitting an exam, or losing a job. In these cases, running away or fighting someone is not the most effective course of action, leaving your body in a heightened state with no exertion to use up all the extra energy, oxygen and hormones it has just released into your system. Generally, once the situation has changed (you complete your speech, finish the exam or change your job) the feelings of anxiety pass and your body returns to its natural state. However, for some people the body remains in this highly stressed state for prolonged periods of time, causing eventually leading to overwhelming feelings of anxiety (panic attacks).

Why do I get panic attacks?

Anxiety can come in a variety of forms. Sometimes there is a distinct underlying problem such as a fear or phobia that gets out of control. For example, you may be worried about becoming ill – perhaps you had a particularly bad experience involving a contagious disease, or perhaps you read too many articles about people catching scary bugs and frightened yourself. If you don’t manage to overcome your worries, they may get worse and lead to damaging behaviour such as excessive hand-washing and cleaning (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). You may become so anxious about getting dirty or catching an illness that you start to avoid leaving your house or meeting friends. In this case, having to go out or talk to someone for even the shortest of times can feel excessively stressful and therefore lead to a panic attack.

Sometimes the cause of anxiety is less clear. You may have learned to be more anxious than other people because that is how your family have always been. It is possible that there is a genetic link too – you may have been born with a personality more likely to experience excessive anxiety than other people. Excess caffeine or sugar intake can cause feelings of anxiety as these stimulate the body, creating a similar physical reaction to that caused by stress. Drug misuse and some medications can also create symptoms of anxiety.

panic attacks

Are panic attacks dangerous?

The immediate effects of a panic attack are generally very brief so once the attack has passed there is no lasting damage. However, prolonged stress or anxiety can have serious effects on your health as the body is not able to function effectively in a state of high stress on a long-term basis. High blood pressure can develop, possibly leading to problems with your heart or other vital organs. Your risk of having a heart attack or stroke is increased. You may experience a significant lack of sleep that can have an impact on your daily life as well as reducing the effectiveness of your immune system leading to increased risk of infection.

What can I do to stop panic attacks?

You can get help to deal with anxiety from your GP who may refer you to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or other support groups that can give you opportunities to share your thoughts and feelings with others who have similar experiences. You may be offered antidepressants or tranquillisers to help you break the cycle of damaging thoughts and feelings. These can be very helpful to start your recovery although they will not be a permanent treatment due to their addictive nature and potential side effects.

Anxiety is often self-perpetuating in that when we are afraid of something, our natural reaction is to avoid it. However, this can actually make you feel worse (a sense of failure perhaps) or less able to deal with this fear effectively the next time you encounter it, making it even more scary. The best way to relieve anxiety is to deal with it directly and find ways of coping with the way you feel about it.






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