Updated: Nov 2, 2021
A panic attack can feel like a sudden onslaught of fear. The intensity of the fear convinces the person of being in imminent danger. To some, it might even feel like having a heart attack, whereas others might experience losing control with their body or their surroundings. These attacks have a frightening effect. However, they are not lethal – even though it might not feel like it when it’s happening.
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 are both overwhelming and scary. Here are the most common signs of panic attacks:
– Heart-pounding, feeling of impending doom or sense of terror
– Feeling breathless, choked or smothered
– Acute chest pains like having a heart attack, fear of dying
– Feeling dizzy and or nauseous
– Feeling a 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 strike without much notice. But some strategies can help you cope during such an attack, for instance,
– Slow deep breathing – Slowing down your breathing and counting up to 6 as you breathe in and then count up to 10 as you breathe out is part of breath counting that can help during an episode. You can also use relaxation, deep breathing apps available on smartphone downloads. There are lots of free tutorials available on Youtube that can teach you 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. Additionally, studies suggest that breathing into a bag can be 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 – Grounding techniques work as a distraction for the brain during a panic attack hence thought to be helpful. For example, 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 – these are some of the most common strategies used by people to cope during a panic attack.
– Get help – The above ways can help you cope with a panic attack. However, it may be of benefit to seek stress counselling by a trained mental health therapist who can help you learn skills to navigate feelings of stress and anxiety and feel better.
What’s important to understand is that this sudden and intense feeling of terror attached to panic attacks can get better. You do not need to struggle in silence or feel embarrassed about it. In the words of the famous American actor Glenn Close, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” Sometimes, the first step can be to be un-silent about what you are dealing with; therapy can get you closer to a feeling of safety and well-being.
If life feels out of control, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a mental health counsellor. 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!