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A panic attack is a sudden, intense wave of overwhelming fear characterised by its unexpectedness and debilitating, paralysing intensity.

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A panic attack occurs when the ‘Fight or Flight’ response is triggered but there is no apparent danger and so nothing to react to. It’s like ‘Fight or Flight’ is jammed to ‘on’ and so the body is flooded with a range of hormones such as adrenaline but isn’t used, and the part of the nervous system that calms us down after the danger has passed isn’t activated because there was no danger to begin with. Consequently we feel the intense immobilising terror of facing an imminent threat to our lives; a racing heart, agitation, shaking, feeling nauseous, feeling hot or cold, faint or dizzy; without anything externally having changed. It truly is the most awful experience, and can last anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour, with the after effects often felt for hours afterwards.

Nobody really knows what causes a panic attack, as they can come completely and unexpectedly out of the blue in what we view as otherwise mentally and emotionally stable people. However there does seem to be a link between stressful life changes and having a panic attack, so it’s worth looking at what is currently going on in your life or you’ve recently experienced that may be stressing your nervous system, even if you’re not aware of it. For example divorce, bereavement, losing your job, moving home, having a baby, a new job, leaving a relationship or anything that has shaken our sense of stability and safety, and temporarily destabilised us. It might seem to have come out of the blue because we may appear and believe that we’re coping okay, but it’s our system’s way of telling us we’re not coping as well as we think and might need additional support or resources. Usually the panic attacks should stop as life returns to a new normal and ways to cope and self-regulate are found.

Counselling near me
Counselling near me

However in my work as a trauma therapist I’ve noticed that many of my clients experience panic attacks even when nothing stressful or new  appears to be going on in their lives, and in this case the common cause seems to be one of the following;

 

  • That you experience something in the present that reminds you of a traumatic event in the past, in other words a ‘trigger.’ This can be conscious or unconscious; it could be a smell or taste or a strain of music that you might not even remember from the original trauma; but your limbic system does. The trigger could also be visiting or experiencing something where you previously had a panic attack, such as being in an enclosed space, public speaking or crossing a bridge for example.  

 

  • That you are already in a heightened state of anxiety because of past trauma and so are on the lookout for ‘threats’, which means we’re not far from escalating into a panic attack. And once we have experienced one panic attack it is so terrifying in itself that it becomes another threat to fear, and so can develop into a panic ‘disorder’ or a constantly threatened state, where we are either worried and anxious about having an attack or are having one, and left untreated can severely restrict our life.

What to do during a panic attack

  • do not fight it

  • stay where you are, if possible, maybe sit down

  • breathe slowly and deeply

  • remind yourself that the attack will pass, you’ve got through it before and you will now

  • focus on positive, peaceful and relaxing images and thoughts

  • remember it's not life threatening 

  • do something kind for yourself as it subsides; wrap yourself in a blanket, make a cup of tea, be proud of yourself for getting through such a horrible experience 

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