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What is a Panic Attack and How Can I Manage?

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Panic attacks can be different for everyone, but are universally unpleasant and frightening experiences. Generally speaking, a panic attack involves the experience of a sudden, intense level of anxiety in the form of physical symptoms that often lead the person to feel as though something terrible is about to happen.

Common physical symptoms involved in panic attacks can include shortness of breath, hyperventilation, dizziness, a racing heartbeat, tingling sensations in the hands/feet and/or light-headedness. Panic attacks can be triggered by specific feared situations (e.g., public speaking, heights) or may simply arise ‘out of the blue’.

Many people who experience panic attacks report worrying that they’re having a heart attack, or fear they are going ‘crazy’.  Importantly, panic attacks – whilst a very real and frightening thing to experience – are not physically harmful. In fact, it is our misinterpretation of these physical sensations as being dangerous that can often keep the cycle of panic in progress.

Can Panic Attacks Be Prevented? 

Panic attacks often occur when we are under additional stress, adjusting to significant life changes, or when we are more vulnerable to experiencing intense emotions. Keeping an eye on overall health and wellbeing can help to keep anxiety and stress levels at bay. A good place to start is by making sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, prioritising movement and exercise, and taking time out to do the things you enjoy and that give you a sense of achievement. It’s also important to make time to connect with others, whether that’s broadening your social network, or quality time with friends and family.  

Many people find that practicing relaxation can help to reduce anxiety levels, which makes us less prone to experiencing panic symptoms. Ask yourself what are some healthy ways that you like to relax? Spending time outdoors, using relaxed breathing exercises, or practicing mindful meditation are some helpful relaxation skills that are worth incorporating as regular parts of your daily routine.

Panic attacks are very common, in fact around 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack during their lifetime.  We know that anxiety can run in families, so it can be helpful to put into practice some relaxation skills if you are aware that you might be more vulnerable to experiencing panic. The good news is, panic attacks are not harmful, and there are really effective treatments available.

How Do You Manage Panic Attacks?

If you recognise these symptoms as part of your own experience, the first thing to do is see a medical professional to rule out any possible medical causes of your symptoms. It’s a good idea to visit your General Practitioner, talk through your physical symptoms and related worries. If after seeking medical advice, you learn that there is no physical cause to these symptoms, it’s likely that you’re experiencing panic attacks. The good news is that panic attacks cannot harm you, despite feeling very frightening to experience. It’s also important to know that there is very helpful, effective treatment for panic attacks.

Tips To Manage Panic Attacks

  • Learn about the cycle of panic: Knowledge is power. Educate yourself on how the body’s fight-or-flight response can cause us to experience a panic attack. Learning about how these sensations can be experienced and also not be harmful, can itself reduce your worry and anxiety about panic attacks.
  • Slow down your breathing: When anxious, we often breathe too quickly, which unfortunately only increases feelings of tension and worry. Take time each day to slow your breathing down. Try breathing in for 3 seconds, out for 3 seconds, and practicing this for several minutes each day.
  • Allow the symptoms to rise and fall like a ‘wave’ and challenge your interpretation of them: Rather than misinterpreting your racing heart as evidence of a medical emergency, try to notice these symptoms as anxiety, remind yourself that they aren’t harmful, and allow the feelings to come and go. This is called ‘panic surfing’ and becomes easier with practice.
  • Take note of your triggers: Make a note of the situations or places that tend to trigger your panic attacks. Common examples include small indoor environments, heights, cardio/aerobic exercise that increases heart rate, public speaking situations. If you’ve been actively avoiding these triggers, try to make a plan to gradually reduce how often you are staying away from these situations.
  • Try not to let the panic ‘take over’: Anxiety can make you want to avoid certain situations, or change your life circumstances to ensure we don’t experience feelings of panic. However, avoidance can actually prolong panic symptoms in the long-run. Try to keep your regular routine and activities in place, despite feelings of anxiety.
  • Seek support: Panic attacks can be frightening, but are very common and very treatable. There is support available to you. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is an effective form of psychological treatment for panic attacks. Consider speaking with a psychologist for individual support. If you’re unsure where to start, have a discussion with your GP about a referral to a mental health clinician or other treatment options. We offer an evidence-based online treatment option, as listed below.

Looking for affordable, accessible online self-guided skills to manage Panic Attacks? Check out our evidence-based Panic Attacks Course here.  

For more information and practical tips on boosting your mental health, head over to thiswayup.org.au

If you’re experiencing distress please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for support available anytime day or night within Australia.

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