It is estimated that 2% of the adult population will develop panic disorder in any given year. Having a panic attack is however more prevalent with over 5% if the adult population reporting a one off or occasional panic attack.
We are living in unprecedented times and with global issues such as pandemics, financial crises, the highest rates of divorce and separation since records began, there is plenty to trigger a panic attack or panic disorder.
In this post I will take a closer look at panic disorder, what it is how it shows up and more importantly what you can do to prevent a panic attack from ruining your day.
What is a Panic attack?
If you have never experienced a panic attack or intense panic of any kind, then you may be wondering what is the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. There are both similarities and differences between anxiety and panic attacks. An anxiety attack often comes in reaction to a trigger or stressful situation, for example, being in a large crowd and a stampede starts. Or going into an exam, an interview or giving a public presentation. An anxiety attack causes apprehension, worry, increased heartbeat and perhaps breathlessness or sweating, but is very short lived. A panic attack produces much more intense symptoms and can last for a long time.
Panic attacks are usually unprovoked and unpredictable. During a panic attack the individual is seized with terror, fear, and absolute panic. They may feel that they’re going to die, or lose control or have a heart attack. They may have a host of physical symptoms including chest pain, severe shortness of breath, intense dizziness, and fainting.
What is Panic Disorder?
According to the uk’s National Health Service website, Panic disorder is “an anxiety disorder where you regularly have sudden attacks of panic or fear. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety and panic at certain times. It’s a natural response to stressful or dangerous situations. But for someone with panic disorder, feelings of anxiety, stress and panic occur regularly and at any time, often for no apparent reason.”
Like any other anxiety disorder panic disorder indicates a daily struggle to keep the thoughts, emotions and physical symptoms at a manageable level. One of the most challenging aspects of panic disorder is the constant onslaught of anticipation about when the next attack will occur. This can be extremely debilitating, preventing a healthy social life, work life and even home or family life.
So whether you suffer from panic disorder, panic thoughts or have recently had an unexpected panic attack, then the steps I have laid out below will help you stop a panic attack from ruining your day.
What happens in the body when having a Panic Attack?
Your body’s F3-fight-flight-freeze response is behind the intense physical symptoms experienced during a panic attack. Normally when you encounter a threat, like a swerving car , your nervous system springs into action. The hormone adrenaline floods into your bloodstream, putting your body on high alert. Your heartbeat quickens, which sends more blood to your muscles. Your breathing becomes fast and shallow, so you can take in more oxygen. Your blood sugar spikes. Your senses get sharper.
All of these changes — which happen in an instant — give you the energy you need to confront a dangerous situation or get out of harm’s way quickly.
With random panic attacks, your body goes on alert for no reason. Researchers don’t know exactly what triggers them. But the physical effects are real: During a panic attack, the adrenaline levels in the body can spike by 2 1/2 times or more.
This response in the body is managed by a part of the nervous system called the Autonomic nervous system (ANS). When this has been activated panic attacks are more likely to take place.
The nervous system however is divided into two parts, with the second part called the Peripheral Nervous system (PNS). When the pns is activated it calms the symptoms down and reverses the impact of the ANS. The PNS releases saliva creating the opposite of dry mouth, slows the heart rate to its normal rate and the flow of adrenaline is slowed down.
Panic attacks may not come as unexpectedly as they seem. The physical changes may start about an hour before an attack. In one study, people with panic disorder wore devices that tracked their heart activity, sweating, and breathing. The results showed lower-than-normal levels of carbon dioxide, a sign of rapid, deep breathing that can leave you breathless, as early as about 45 minutes before the panic attack. So when anxiety begins to increase and the symptoms of panic begin to show up, we want to activate the PNS, in order to calm everything down and return to a state of homeostasis.
How to stop or prevent a Panic attack
To get through a panic attack, try the following 5 step process
- Acknowledge that your body is going into a state of panic. By acknowledging what is happening you stop the resistance in the body and surrender to what is next.
- Stop panicking – this may sound obvious, but by repeating to yourself over and over again “there is nothing to panic about will” can help to release some of the fear that can increase the panic.
- BREATHE! Stop whatever you are doing and focus intently on your breathing. Try to inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold it for 2 seconds, then exhale through your mouth for 6 seconds. Breathe as deeply as you can and keep breathing until you feel your mouth begin to fill with saliva. This will help to activate the PNS and deactivate the ANS, stopping or even preventing the panic attack from coming on.
- Relax! Find a place where you can sit or be comfortable. Concentrate on making your breath slow and even. The more relaxed you are the faster the attack will pass. If you notice the symptoms ramping up before a full blown panic attack, then relaxing and breathing can prevent the body from releasing adrenaline and developing a panic attack.
- DON’T PANIC ABOUT PANIC! If you have just had a panic attack or feel panicked about something in your life, try not to panic about having a panic attack. Tell yourself that you’re not in danger and that the attack will pass, or it won’t happen.
Panic disorder is one of the most treatable types of anxiety disorders. Medication and a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy can help. See your doctor if you have panic attacks often. If you’re not sure if you’re having a panic attack, it’s a good idea to go to the hospital to rule out any other health problems.