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7 Things to Do When Panic Attacks

7 Things to Do When Panic Attacks

Ever experienced a sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear? A panic attack is an intense wave of fear characterized by its unexpectedness and debilitating, immobilizing intensity. Your heart pounds, you can’t breathe, and you may feel like you’re dying or going crazy. Panic attacks often strike out of the blue, without any warning, and sometimes with no clear trigger. They may even occur when you’re relaxed or asleep.

The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. They rarely last more than an hour, with most ending within 20 to 30 minutes. Panic attacks can happen anywhere and at any time. You may have one while you’re in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or even sitting on the couch at home.

Panic attack symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
  • Heart palpitations or racing heart
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Choking feeling
  • Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy

Most of the symptoms of a panic attack are physical, and many times these symptoms are so severe that you may think you’re having a heart attack. In fact, many people suffering from panic attacks make… trips to the doctor or the emergency room in an attempt to get treatment for what they believe is a life-threatening medical problem. While it is important to rule out possible medical causes of symptoms such as chest pain, elevated heart rate, or difficulty breathing, it’s often panic that is overlooked as a potential cause—not the other way around.

Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, or having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger panic attacks. Panic attacks can also be caused by medical conditions and other physical causes.

No matter how powerless or out of control you may feel about your panic attacks, it’s important to know that there are many things you can do to help yourself. The following self-help techniques can make a big difference to helping you overcome panic:

  • Learn about panic and anxiety. Simply knowing more about panic can go a long way towards relieving your distress. Read up on anxiety, panic disorder, and the fight- or-flight response experienced during a panic attack. You’ll learn that the sensations and feelings you have when you panic are normal and that you aren’t going crazy.
  • Avoid smoking, alcohol, and caffeine. These can all provoke panic attacks in people who are susceptible… Also, be careful with medications that contain stimulants, such as diet pills and non-drowsy cold medications.
  • Learn how to control your breathing. Hyperventilation brings on many sensations (such as lightheadedness and tightness of the chest) that occur during a panic attack. Deep breathing, on the other hand, can relieve the symptoms of panic. By learning to control your breathing, you can calm yourself down when you begin to feel anxious. And if you know how to control your breathing, you’re also less likely to create the very sensations that you’re afraid of.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response—the opposite of the stress response involved in anxiety and panic. And not only do these relaxation practices promote relaxation, but they also increase feelings of joy and equanimity.
  • Connect face-to-face with family and friends. Symptoms of anxiety can become worse when you feel isolated, so reach out to people who care about you on a regular basis. If you feel that you don’t have anyone to turn to, explore ways to meet new people and build supportive friendships.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a natural anxiety reliever so try to get moving for at least 30 minutes on most days (three 10-minute sessions is just as good). Rhythmic aerobic exercise that requires moving both your arms and legs—like walking, running, swimming, or dancing—can be especially effective.
  • Get enough restful sleep. Insufficient or poor-quality sleep can make anxiety worse, so try to get seven to nine hours of restful sleep a night. If sleeping well is a problem for you, these tips to getting a good night’s sleep can help.

–Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.

“Practicing regular, mindful breathing can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.”

–Andrew Weil, M.D.

“First, you’d discover that the monster was not real. You’d realize that it was just an illusion that you never had anything to fear in the first place. You’d see that the monster had no teeth. This would be an incredible triumph.”

–David Burns, M.D
When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life

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