“This is very scary. What do I do?”
Suddenly your heart is beating faster, you are getting sweaty, you start shaking, you experience shortness of breath, you have some pain in your chest area and you begin to feel nauseas and disoriented. The likelihood is that you are having a panic attack.
“A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening.” You might even think you are having a heart attack or a stroke.
What is happening is that adrenaline is flooding into your bloodstream which then puts you on high alert. During a panic attack, your heart starts beating faster, your breathing becomes faster and shallower so that you can take in more oxygen. All your senses get heightened.
At one time, in man’s evolution, a fight or flight response such as this was depended upon to signal a person to get out of the way of danger, in case of a bear or tiger attack. At that time, this kind of reaction was a necessary defense that ensured survival.
Today, a panic attack can occur with unknown origins. They often come on suddenly and without warning. Or they may be as a result of a very stressful situation or a sensitivity to external stimulation.
Risk factors that might increase the risk of panic attacks or panic disorders:
- Genetic factor like a family history of panic attacks.
- A major life stress like death of a loved one.
- A traumatic event such as a car accident or a physical attack of some kind.
- Excessive caffeine.
- Major life changes like having a baby.
- History of childhood physical or sexual abuse.
What can be done about them?
- First of all, it is important to name it as a panic attack (and not a heart attack. It would be important to know the distinctions in terms of symptoms), and to tell yourself that “This too shall pass.”
- Then, begin to slow your breathing down. Breathe in for a count of 4. Hold for 2 seconds and breathe out for a count of 6. This, in and of itself, may stop the attack from getting worse.
- Practice mindfulness. Notice what is going on in the environment in the present moment. What is the temperature in the room like? What do you see in your immediate vision?
- Focus on one object. In your mind, list as many of the qualities as you can about it. What is the color of the object? What is the shape? Is it static or does it move? Ie. Notice a clock on the wall and watch to see if the time changes while you are observing it.
- Do some light exercise like taking a walk.
To keep panic attacks away in the future, it would be helpful to have a Mindfulness practice, and to participate in regular physical exercise. And if they persist, it is important to get professional help.