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Understanding and overcoming panic attacks

What is a panic attack?

When people experience these symptoms, they will often have thoughts such as, “I’m going to have a heart attack”, or “I’m going to die”, or “I’m going to lose control”, or “I’m going to embarrass myself”. While these thoughts are understandable, they are largely false. Unfortunately, once you start thinking this way, you become even more anxious, which keeps the physical symptoms going. A vicious circle of thoughts and physical symptoms is created.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that when most people have a panic attack, their natural reaction is to try to leave the situation they find themselves in as quickly as possible. While this avoidance strategy brings temporary relief, it increases the likelihood of further fears, negative thoughts, physical symptoms and the development of a phobic reaction.

Panic attacks and stress

Panic attacks are one symptom of a build-up of stress. People who experience panic attacks seem to be those who experience stress in their respiratory and cardiovascular system rather than in their muscular or gastrointestinal system. Often, the symptom of panic produces such worry and stress that these symptoms become more of a problem that the stress that originally caused them.

The body’s fear reaction

The symptoms described above are in fact an extreme form of normal bodily reaction to a fearful situation. Imagine you were on a roof and you began to slip. Your heart would pound, your breathing would alter, and you might turn very pale or break out in a sweat. But once you had stopped yourself falling and had climbed down to the ground and were safe, your anxiety would die down. You would understand the symptoms as being quite natural, and you would not worry about them. But what if you experienced the same symptoms walking to the local shop, or sitting at your desk at work? Your mind would immediately try to make sense of the situation and would likely come up with a number of frightening thoughts.

The problem with panic attacks is that your fear reaction has become oversensitive and is being triggered in a variety of apparently normal situations. This over sensitivity of the fear reaction is more likely to occur if you are tired or under a lot of stress. Sometimes, worrying about having another panic attack can cause this stress. If you have had one bad attack you can become over vigilant, an expert at detecting the normal changes in your body which you would usually ignore. You are constantly on the lookout for slight changes that may indicate that something is amiss. Once you imagine something is wrong, you become slightly frightened, triggering the body’s reaction and the vicious circle of panic takes off.

Can panic attacks harm me?

Though panic attacks are unpleasant they do not in any way harm you. The feelings themselves are quite normal. It is just that they are happening in an ordinary situation, rather than in an obviously dangerous or frightening one.

Eight rules for coping with panic attacks.

1. Remember, panic attacks are normal feelings that are exaggerated.
2. They are not harmful and nothing worse will happen.
3. Notice what is happening to your body now. Stay with the present. Slow down, relax but keep going.
4. Thinking about what might happen is unhelpful. Only now matters.
5. Accept the feelings. Let them run through you – they will go away more quickly.
6. Monitor your level of anxiety: 10 (worst) to 0 (least).
7. Stay with the situation. If you run away, avoid or escape, it will be more difficult in the future.
8. Take a few slow, deep breaths.


Our approach to therapy


Following a car accident, I suffered terribly with a fight or flight response when driving. I did not know what this anxiety was and tried for months to recover on my own. After a particularly severe anxiety attack, I realised that I needed to get help. EMDR therapy was incredibly effective. My anxiety was linked specifically to the accident and in one session the anxiety was dispersed.  I literally walked out of Swift Counselling, got in my car and drove with no anxiety from that moment on.  I am thrilled with the results, thank you.