Panic stems from fear, which is a normal emotion. Panic is helpful to react and protect yourself in dangerous situations. With panic, you may sometimes experience an intense fear response when there is no apparent danger. It can be like the fire alarm ringing when there is no fire. In some situations, a panic attack can be a false alarm.
A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety. Panic attacks can be divided into either spontaneous or situational panic attacks. Spontaneous attacks occur when there is no obvious external trigger. It can occur with feelings of exhaustion and burn out that cause intense sensations of panic. Your reaction to these uncomfortable sensations can add fear, resulting in a panic attack.
With situational panic attacks, you can be triggered from associating memories of negative or dangerous situations or associating memories of prior spontaneous moments of panic. For example, you may experience a spontaneous attack at work after a long tiring day. You may then start to associate panic with your work environment, colleagues, meetings etc.
With panic attacks, the physical sensations can resemble a heart attack which can leave you feeling exhausted, confused and nervously anticipating the next panic attack. Some of the ***physical sensations of panic attacks include (but are not limited to):
- Increased heartbeat, numbness, tingling.
- Tightness in your chest, hyperventilation, dizziness, light-headedness, feeling faint.
- Blurred vision, difficulty focusing.
- Trembling or shaking.
*** If you are experiencing these physical sensations, it is also important to visit your GP to carry out a physical examination or blood tests to rule out any other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.***
Some things that may help
Experiencing all these sensations is frightening but they are not dangerous. Panic cannot go to a point of no return. When possible, remind yourself that this will pass. You are not “losing it” or “going crazy”. Trust that your body can handle the sensations and discomfort you feel.
Sitting with the discomfort – This can be extremely difficult to do at times when the physical sensations are prevalent and quite scary. It may feel “easier said than done”. You can gradually learn to sit with discomfort of things not as distressing as a panic attack (e.g. listening to a song you don’t like, having a 10 second cold shower). This can build up your resilience with experiencing uncomfortable sensations. Over time, it may become easier to try to sit with the sensations of the panic. By avoiding the sensations, this may make you more afraid of the fear of having a panic attack and can make them stronger when/if they re-occur. Remember, this will pass.
During a panic attack, put on pause trying to find the root behind the panic. Searching for the reason behind the panic during the attack can add more distress, especially if you’re struggling to find the root cause. There will be lots of time after the attack to curiously investigate your experience. A
Breathing/Grounding – This too can sometimes feel it’s “easier said than done” during a panic attack. Like sitting with discomfort, it’s important to practice breathing techniques when you are calm and not just during panic. When sensations of panic are so overwhelming, it can be hard to remember to use a breathing technique. When you practice breathing techniques when you are calm, it may become more instinctive to also focus on your breath during moments of panic.
If you are having difficulty using breathing techniques during panic, it can be useful to reassure and remind yourself that your body will breathe for itself during a panic attack.
If focusing on your breathing is too much during an attack, taking notice of what’s around you may help to ground you. Use your senses to bring yourself into the present moment (e.g. say what you see, hear, smell, taste, feel).
Talk about it: Although it can be difficult to share, speak to a trusted friend or family member about what you are experiencing. It’s more beneficial to speak to someone that you are going to feel assured and validated by as opposed to speaking to someone who may judge you for your feelings. For some people, having a trusted person to ring when they are experiencing panic can be useful for grounding them and de-escalating sensations of panic.
Additionally, reaching out to someone outside of your close circle can offer non-biased support and an outsider’s perspective. Counsellors and therapists can help explore the root of your panic and what factors trigger and maintain your panic. They can help you develop techniques to reduce uncomfortable sensations of panic.