What are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are a sudden onset of acute anxiety, occurring without warning, often in particular situations such as crowded or confined places.

The attacks are always accompanied by physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, sweating, feeling faint, trembling, palpitations, rapid breathing or even a sensation of choking or fear of dying.  The symptoms will vary from person to person.

There may be feeling of apprehension as though something terrible is about to happen.  During a panic attack the sufferer may experience a sense of impending doom, terror, or a fear of losing self control.

Sufferers may try to avoid places or situations where attacks tend to occur (such as crowded or open spaces) and be afraid to leave the house despite the lack of any real threat.

The attacks themselves may be disabling in that they interfere with work, social contacts and normal domestic responsibilities such as shopping, or taking children to school.

Panic attacks tend to be recurrent.  They may occur in individuals who are otherwise reasonably normal or who are fairly anxious to begin with sometimes simply fearing that an attack may happen is enough to bring one on.

In most cases there is no obvious cause or object that will precipitate an attack – unlike a phobia where a particular animal, object or situation may cause a panic reation.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

Some People are prone to higher levels of anxiety than others, with a higher than average likelihood of developing panic attacks.

In other cases, the onset of panic attacks may be traced back to some particularly stressful experience, which may then be associated with a wide range of events in the person’s life.

The result is that feelings of panic may be experienced in situations where there is apparently little connection with the original cause or trauma.

Stress connected with ongoing events, particularly if long term or intense, may lead to a number of psychological problems including panic disorders.

Uncertainty, or conflict about a career, close relationships or personal achievements, may be relevant factors in panic attacks.  Feelings of depression, with a general loss of confidence, may also leave people open to attacks.

How are Panic Attacks Treated?

Many people suffer panic attacks from time to time and recover without treatment,  For others, particularly where the attacks are frequent and long term (or increasing), help should be sought, initially from one’s doctor, where a brief period of counseling, with or without medication, may be required.

In more severe cases (for example where the panic attacks are seriously disabling) the doctor may refer the sufferer to a specialist, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, where a range of treatments are available.  These may include behaviour modification techniques, enabling sufferers to recognize and reduce the attack.

Learning to relax can also reduce the chances of attacks recurring, perhaps by means of breathing exercises, or learning to cope with unpleasant thoughts associated with panic reactions.  For some individuals, psychotherapy may be needed to resolve deeper problems, or unresolved conflicts.

Some people worry unnecessarily over normal physical sensations, fearing they may have a serious or fatal disease.  In such cases, re-educating them about what is actually ‘abnormal’ can help allay these fears.

Where the attacks are linked to an overly stressful lifestyle, a restructuring of personal or career goals may be needed.

What can I do Myself?

Try not to worry unnecessarily if an attack occurs, as this may make it worse.  A panic attack does not mean you are ‘losing your mind’ or will lose control.  Panic attacks will pass, even if you do nothing about them.

If the attack recur regularly or get noticeably worse, seek professional help, if only to obtain objective and reassuring advice that how much you feel during an attack is often much worse than the implications of the experience itself.  Many acute attacks improve with time, especially if there is reduced pressure on individuals or a lowering of their usual level of anxiety.

Other factors, such as exertion, over work, depression, or undue concern about health matters may contribute to the frequency of panic attacks.  In such cases, an early consultation with the doctor is especially important.

Are Panic Attacks Dangerous?

Panic attacks are not usually dangerous, but they can be unpleasant and frightening at the time.  If they cause the sufferer to refrain from normal activities, or to rely on drugs such as alcohol in order to keep calm or avoid further attacks, complication may arise.  If this applies to you, seek medical advice or contact a self help organization.

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