Panic attacks are an unpleasant anxiety disorder that many of us experience at some point in our lives. Harmless though they are, they can be a problem for someone if they prevent sleep, exacerbate other conditions such as asthma, or result in them being afraid to leave their homes. Being able to control a panic attack is important then in order to get on with your normal life, and once you understand them you will usually find that they subside and don’t re-occur. The question you need to ask yourself then is ‘how do I control a panic attack?’.
To answer that question (how do I control a panic attack?) it’s important to learn how they come about. A panic attack is a psychosomatic condition, meaning that it is dependent on your psychology. That isn’t to say that it isn’t all ‘in the mind’ however, and the symptoms that occur are physically detectable. These symptoms are caused by adrenaline mostly produced by the adrenal glands. Normally these glands will produce adrenaline in response to a stressful life event in what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, and were useful in the wild for helping us to escape predators and get away from other dangerous and life threatening situations. This works due to the role of adrenaline being to increase our heart rate and muscle tone and to dull pain. However this is not always adaptive in today’s world where most of our problems can’t be solved through strength and speed alone.
Over a long period of time continuous exposure to stimulants (of which adrenaline is one) can start to wear down the body and the immune system and place strain on the heart which is where stress comes from. In a panic attack however, we suddenly become highly anxious and feel our heart pumping heavily in our chest and possibly start to hyperventilate, almost like an acute version of maladaptive stress.
Panic attacks normally begin during a period of high stress but are not necessarily triggered by any specific event at the time they occur. Someone who is facing challenges in their life might find that they start suffering panic attacks during the night around that period. Sometimes panic attacks can occur immediately when faced with a stressor, particularly in the case of those who suffer from a phobia or another type of anxiety disorder (e.g. someone who has agoraphobia might get panic attacks when they go outside). Here the easiest way to control a panic attack is to avoid the particular stressor and to overcome the fear. In other cases there will be no obvious cause for the attacks. Panic attacks are also more common in men, usually between the ages of 20-50.
When a panic attack occurs it is often self perpetuating as the attack in itself causes panic which increases the fight or flight response. This is because the symptoms are far more pronounced than most people would expect and can easily be confused with the symptoms of another condition such as a heart attack or asthma attack Many people experience a crushing feeling in their chest coupled with a louder and faster heart beat, rushing blood in their ears and difficulty breathing. Others report a sense of ‘dread’ or ‘doom’ and this can lead to them believing that they are dying. Of course this belief then only exacerbates those symptoms and may even lead to the actual occurrence of a heart attack or asthma attack. As the condition is psychosomatic then, it can easily be worsened by false beliefs.
The best way to control chronic panic attacks then is to recognise them for what they are and to remain calm about it which will cause them to dissipate. This means replacing negative beliefs and thoughts such as ‘I’m having a heart attack’ or ‘I’m dying’ with positive ones such as ‘I’m just having a panic attack’ and ‘it will pass in a moment’. After you’ve seen a doctor they will normally reassure you that your panic attacks are harmless and will encourage you to control your breathing and not to get anxious.
If you struggle to do this yourself then there are ways you can get help controlling panic attacks. One way to do this is with a form of therapy called ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ or ‘CBT’. This is a form of psychology that teaches individuals to recognise the contents of their own thoughts and to then change them as necessary. This is achieved with a series of ‘tools’ and techniques such as ‘mindfulness’ in which the patient is encouraged to meditate in a way while paying attention to their thoughts as they ‘float’ past. They would then begin to recognise those thoughts that can trigger or exacerbate a panic attack and to replace them with the more helpful ones that their therapist had provided.
Another tool is the use of a diary in which the patient will note down their thoughts and events during the day in order to similarly identify triggers so that they can be avoided. If seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist does not help the condition, then you might also be prescribed sedatives which can help you to overcome your anxiety. Most of all though overcoming panic attacks requires will and determination as well as a recognition of your own thought processes. Now you know how to answer the question ‘how do I control a panic attack’ you should find that the problem dissipates.