A panic attack can feel like overwhelming fear, which suddenly strikes, leaving the person feeling as if they are trapped in imminent danger. It's not unusual for an onslaught of such fear to feel like a heart attack. In some cases, a panic attack might result in a trip to the emergency room. And even though panic attacks may result in a state of heightened fear, they are not dangerous or harmful.
Such attacks are generally related to a difficult or stressful time in your life, such as losing a family member/friend, undergoing frightening experiences like neglect, abuse, bullying at home or outside, or feeling stressed about an exam, work-related event or relationship issues. According to a study in Alberta, around 35 percent of university students experience a panic attack at some point. The physical and emotional manifestations of these attacks can feel both overwhelming and scary. Here are the most common signs of panic attacks:
1) Heart-pounding, feeling of impending doom or sense of terror
2) Feeling breathless, choked or smothered
3) Acute chest pains like having a heart attack, fear of dying
4) Feeling dizzy and or nauseous
5) Feeling a sense of loss of control, detached from one's body
The physical and or emotional symptoms can last for a brief period - from a few minutes up to half an hour. However, the anxiety induced from such episodes can persist up to hours after a panic attack. What's more, people who have experienced such an episode are at a greater risk of experiencing subsequent attacks than those who have never had panic attacks. The diagnosis used for recurring episodes of such attacks is Panic Disorder.
Panic attacks are terror-inducing and can feel intimidating to deal with primarily because they can happen seemingly out of the blue. But some strategies can help you cope during such an attack, for instance,
- Going toward the anxiety- We'll start with the hardest one first, but it's the most helpful coping strategy that you can use in times of panic. We have a natural tendency to want to avoid anxiety and distract from it, but actually, the way to reduce it is by facing it head on. Try to increase your anxiety during a panic attack. Try to go toward it instead of trying to decrease it. I know, it's the last thing you want to do. But, paradoxically, by moving toward the anxiety, it naturally decreases. It's like telling your brain that "I don't have to fear this."
- Slow deep breathing - Slowing down your breathing and counting up to 6 as you breathe in and then counting up to 10 as you breathe out is part of breath counting that can help during an episode. While doing this, You can also use relaxation deep breathing apps available on smartphone downloads. You can access free tutorials on Youtube to help you learn breathing and relaxation techniques. Check out apps like the Tactical Breather, Breathing Zone, Headspace, and Calm. Important tip: Breathing into a paper bag is no longer supported by research. In addition, studies suggest that breathing into a bag can be particularly detrimental for people with asthma or breathing issues.
- Coping thoughts - Try having thoughts that will allow coping with feelings of anxiousness, for instance, "I am starting to feel anxious. It feels terrible. I have had these attacks before, and I know this will pass."
- Visualization: While this might sound like complex advice to follow, especially when feeling anxious, it does help. Try imagining a calm place, a beach, a sunny park, or any other place that relaxes the mind.
- Grounding strategies - A common grounding strategy is to name 5 things you can see; name 4 things you can touch; name 3 things you can hear; name 2 things you can smell and name 1 thing that you are grateful for. By grounding, you can develop a sense of safety that is necessary to fully move through the panic attack.
While the above ways can help you cope with a panic attack, it's advisable to seek therapy from a trained psychologist who can help you learn skills to navigate feelings of stress and anxiety and feel better. The best method for treating panic attacks is called "Exposure Therapy," which is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This technique successfully treats phobias, panic attacks, and general and social anxiety. It focuses on exposing you to the sensations of panic so your body and mind respond differently. This treatment also helps you to explore and shift your emotional thinking and negative beliefs. So, the answer is that can therapy help with panic attacks? Well! Absolutely!
Even though panic attacks are associated with intense feelings of terror, you can take comfort from the fact that help is available to feel better. Therapy can help you navigate those intense feelings of fright and anxiety attached to panic attacks, but it can also facilitate a better understanding of what you are experiencing. And as they say, the best way to solve a problem is to start dealing with it - "A problem well stated is a problem half solved." Therapy will help you make sense of what you have been dealing with in silence and probably on your own. The truth is that you don't have to struggle in silence, and more crucially, you are not alone.
If life feels out of control, don't hesitate to seek the help of a psychologist. At Ward & Associates Psychological Services, we provide therapy for anxiety disorders, couples counselling, PTSD Treatment, and more in Sherwood Park. We also offer video counselling for clients anywhere in Alberta. Book an appointment now!