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How to Manage Panic Attacks

Updated: May 14

Seven strategies for managing panic attacks

I had my first panic attack when I was 20 years old. A fearful and terrifying feeling came out of nowhere and struck me. There was no trigger that I was aware of at the time. I was out shopping when the world seemed to tilt around me. I lost the capacity to move my legs, my hands went numb, and my heart was racing so hard I felt it would come out of my chest. I dropped to the floor and wanted the earth to swallow me up as people stopped to ask what was wrong with me. I did not have the answer.

At 20, I hadn't even heard of a panic attack before and was convinced that what had happened was due to a defect in my brain or heart. I felt there was something seriously wrong with me. Anyone that has had panic disorder will know that the feelings are so real and intense that you feel convinced that something terrible is going to happen or that you are about to die.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden increase in anxiety, causing an intense sensation of fear. The autonomic nervous system is triggered; this is the "flight or fight" response. Areas of the brain called the amygdala fire up, thus sending a flood of adrenalin into the bloodstream, preparing the body for action.

Physical symptoms include a pounding or racing heart, weakness or dizziness, sweating, shaking, rapid breathing, pins and needles in hands and feet, chest pain, stomach pain, and nausea. Symptoms typically last a few minutes to half an hour.

How common are panic attacks?

Once I started talking about my experience with friends and family, I was surprised to discover how many other people had encountered at least one panic attack during their life.

So, if you have had a panic attack, you are not alone. Around 35% of Australians have experienced a panic attacks at some point in their life, with women being twice as likely to have them than men. Panic attacks are more likely to occur when experiencing an illness or during stressful periods in life when anxiety is higher.

A few things can help if you suffer from panic attacks.

Seven tips for panic attacks:

  1. Meditation and relaxation techniques. Easing daily stresses can help, such as taking regular breaks during busy work days and doing relaxing things that you enjoy, such as meditation, walking, getting a massage or yoga. Regular progressive muscle relaxation has been shown to help to reduce panic attacks. Starting with your feet, tense each muscle group and relax as you move up your body.

  2. Breathing techniques. During a panic attack, we automatically start to increase our breathing and hyperventilate, creating low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. This leads to tingling in our hands and feet and dizziness. Furthermore, it increases our feeling of panic. Try to slow down your breathing and practice daily deep breathing techniques to help decrease your anxiety symptoms.

  3. Educate yourself about panic attacks. Understanding your own body and mind will help you gain self-awareness and the ability to recognise when you are feeling stressed or when you might be getting triggered. Understanding what self-help techniques work for you and knowing when you might need professional or medical assistance can help you feel more in control of your panic attacks.

  4. Exercise. Engaging in regular exercise has been proven to lower stress and anxiety and reduce panic attacks.

  5. Avoid stimulants. Caffeine, alcohol, smoking and recreational drugs can increase and worsen panic attacks.

  6. Sleep. Having good quality sleep helps to keep your mind healthy and reduce stress. Aim for 8 hours of sleep a night.

  7. Professional help. If you have regular panic attacks, if they are becoming worse, or if it feels that they are interfering with your life and preventing you from doing the things you used to enjoy, seek professional assistance. Doctors may provide medication to help with the anxiety, and professional CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) from a trained counsellor or psychologist can help.

It is important to note that if the panic attacks become recurrent and ongoing and you find that they impact the quality of your life, you may be experiencing panic disorder. If this is the case seeking medical intervention is recommended. Panic disorder affects around 5% of people in Australia and can be treated by medication and ongoing professional support. If you feel the symptoms are severe, call 000.

Take care of yourself and your mental health. Remember, you are not alone if you have suffered from a panic attack. If you want to learn more, want support or wish to participate in a support group, follow the links below or speak to your medical professional. Your mental health matters.


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