Panic attack

How to spot a panic attack

You probably have heard about panic attacks, but maybe it’s not quite clear to you what it means to have a panic attack and what it looks like. Or maybe you have experienced one and you would like to know what to do if it were to happen again.

In this fifth instalment of the #mentalhealthawarenessweek series, we are going to look at what the experience of a panic attack might look and feel like and what the best things to do are.

This post has been requested by a dear friend of mine and all the information is from the Mind website.

What is a panic attack?

“Panic attacks are a type of fear response. They’re an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to stress, danger or excitement” (source)

“A sudden overwhelming feeling of acute and disabling anxiety” (source)

“A panic attackĀ is when your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms” (source)

To put it all together, a panic attack is an intense and exaggerated response to stress or danger which can feel quite disabling and overwhelming.

What does it feel like?

Sometimes it can be tricky to recognise a panic attack, especially if you’ve never experienced one yourself.

Here are some of the possible feelings and sensations associated with panic attacks:

  • a pounding or racing heartbeat
  • feeling faint, dizzy or light-headed
  • feeling very hot or very cold
  • sweating, trembling or shaking
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • pain in your chest or abdomen
  • struggling to breathe or feeling like you’re choking
  • feeling like your legs are shaky or are turning to jelly
  • feeling disconnected from your mind, body or surroundings

You might also feel afraid of:

  • losing control
  • fainting
  • having a heart attack
  • dying

How often does it happen?

There is no rule. Some people only ever have one panic attack in their life and might never experience one again. Other people might have panic attacks at regular intervals of days, weeks or months. Other people still experience a few in a short period of time and then stop. And lastly, some people might experience panic attacks when in certain places, situations or when doing certain activities.

Panic attacks last between 5 and 20 minutes. They peak (are at its worst) and then fade. Let’s look into some things that can you can do when you have a panic attack.

What can I do?

Panic attacks can be very frightening experiences and it might feel like you can’t do much about them. There are however some techniques you can try to alleviate the symptoms and take yourself to a calmer state:

  • Focus on your breathing. It can help to concentrate on breathing slowly in and out while counting to five.
  • Stamp on the spot. Some people find this helps control their breathing.
  • Focus on your senses. For example, taste mint-flavoured sweets or gum, or touch or cuddle something soft.
  • Try grounding techniques. Grounding techniques can help you feel more in control. They’re especially useful if you experience dissociation during panic attacks.

After a panic attack, make sure you:

  • Think about self-care. It’s important to pay attention to what your body needs after you’ve had a panic attack. For example, you might need to rest somewhere quietly or eat or drink something.
  • Tell someone you trust. If you feel able to, it could help to let someone know you’ve had a panic attack. It could be particularly helpful to mention how they might notice if you’re having another one, and how you’d like them to help you.
  • Get help. You can find some useful links here. You don’t have to struggle on your own.

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