Many of us have experienced it.
Your heart is beating a million miles an hour, hands are shaking, you can’t catch your breath, that feeling of sickness keeps rising, the walls are closing in and the room starts to blur. It’s happening - you’re having a panic attack.
For some, these attacks occur in response to a known fear, such as spiders or speaking in public, but for others, a panic attack can occur at any time, on any day and in any situation, and these people are more likely to be struggling with Panic Disorder.
For those suffering with Panic Disorder, it’s not just the panic attacks themselves that cause distress, but the constant worry about the fall-out or consequences from the attacks.
Quite often the fear of losing control, of humiliation or simply that you might be ‘losing it’ is more distressing than the panic attacks themselves. As a result, panic disorder can quite often lead to depression and other anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia in more severe cases.
It is so important to know that panic attacks and panic disorder respond very well to treatment, and there is no need to continue to suffer through it.
What is a Panic Attack?
Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder are part of the Anxiety family, which tends to be characterised by constant worry and stress about the ‘what if’s?’ in life. Some anxiety can be positive, both as a survival mechanism and a motivator, but at its extreme, high levels of anxiety can be hugely limiting and even interfere with basic functioning.
A panic attack is a reaction to fear, which is a normal biological response to threat. When we are presented with a threatening stimulus, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and starts pumping adrenaline around our body to trigger a fight, flight or freeze response in order to protect ourselves.
The problem with a panic attack though is that the fear response is triggered without a life threatening danger actually being present, and consequently, there is nowhere for that built up energy to go.
This results in an extremely uncomfortable and distressing experience that can come on suddenly and last anywhere between a few minutes and up to half an hour.
How can I tell if I’m having a Panic Attack?
No two panic attacks are the same, but they always include a combination of physiological and psychological symptoms.
These can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness / light-headedness
- Tightness in the chest
- Trembling / shaking
- Dry mouth
- Tight muscles
- Racing heart
- Pins & Needles in fingers or feet
- A choking or smothering feeling
- Hot or cold flushes
- Blurred vision
- Feelings of unreality, or separation from yourself
- Difficulty gathering thoughts or speaking
- Powerful urge to flee or run away
- Fear of dying, losing control or going mad
How common is a Panic Disorder?
Approximately 20% of the population will experience a Panic Attack in their lifetime, but only 2% will deal with Panic Disorder. Panic Disorder is more frequent in females, and will usually start in their mid-twenties.
The good news is that anxiety disorders, including panic, respond very well to treatment, and quite often in a relatively short amount of time.
If you suffer anxiety or panic symptoms, it is important that you see a Doctor to rule out a medical condition. Some drugs and supplements can cause anxiety, so it’s best that you let them know about any prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies or recreational drugs that you might be taking. If a medical cause is ruled out, the next step is to see a psychologist who has experience treating anxiety and panic disorders.
The specific treatment approach will depend on the severity of the panic attacks, and whether they are happening in tandem with any other depressive or anxiety disorders.
In general though, anxiety disorders are usually treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
As with anxiety, panic disorders and panic attacks have been found to respond very well to treatment, but the best results are found when people are motivated and willing to make a change to your lifestyle. Some changes that have been found to reduce the intensity of attacks include:
- Utilising deep relaxation techniques, such as meditation or muscle relaxation
- Regular Exercise
- Learning to acknowledge and express your feelings, rather than ignoring them
- Using positive self-talk to create a calmer and more accepting attitude
- Cutting back on stimulants, such as coffee and alcohol
How can a Psychologist help with your Panic Disorder?
The core of any panic attack is that biological fear response, so the key to treatment is to develop strategies that help remove the fear so that the attacks no longer have the power to frighten you.
When you come in, your Psychologist will gain an understanding from you about how you are feeling and thinking, and what is happening in your life. You will usually be asked to do some simple tests, and these will help to assess the severity of your panic attacks, and whether you are suffering any other symptoms of anxiety or depression.
You will also be asked what might be the causes and stressors in your life, and your Psychologist will work with you to devise a treatment plan that will suit you and your lifestyle.
After your initial session, you will have some insight into what the problem is, a plan for therapy for the future, and some initial strategies to help get you started.
We have experienced and caring Psychologists in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, and regional cities across Australia. Phone our friendly receptionists on 1300830552 for more information and to help you choose which Psychologist might be best for you.