Panic Attacks 101: What Are They And Why Do I Get Them?
What you need to know.
If you’re clued into the mental health world, know someone with anxiety or depression, or experience stress and anxiety yourself, you’ve probably heard of panic attacks. Although there’s very little data on how many people experience them, we’re seeing huge increases in anxiety and depression diagnoses and we know stress is on the rise.
But, despite all the talk around them, and knowing people around us are dealing with them every day, a lot of us just have no clue what they *actually* are. Despite the buzzword being thrown around, there’s little education going on.
So, welcome to Panic Attacks 101 where we’re going to talk about the ins and outs of these somewhat mysterious things. We’ll explain to you what they are, what brings them on, why they happen and more.
First things first: what is a panic attack?
A panic attack is classified as ‘a sudden overwhelming feeling of disabling anxiety’ or an extreme fear or feeling of ‘an impending sense of doom’. What this essentially means is that you feel like you are about to face imminent danger or feel as though you are under attack and your body responds with a diverse range of symptoms. They often come out of the blue and without warning and don’t necessarily have to be a reaction to any specific event.
So, what are the symptoms?
Panic attacks can be tricky to identify because the vast combinations of symptoms you can experience. Some of the more common ones are…
• feeling disorientated
• chest pains
• irregular heartbeats
• dry mouth
…but these are just the ones seen more regularly. If you look at mental health forums, speak to doctors, or even just whack a Google search up, you’ll find that there are bizarre and irregular symptoms that could be included on that list, paired up with some of the ones here. Typically, though, you’ll experience at least one of these symptoms even if it’s coupled with something less common.
Why am I having one?
The causes of panic attacks are vast, which pretty much goes for most things relating to mental health. However, panic attacks are predominantly brought on by high, intense amounts of stress and or anxiety. What’s actually happening in your body is that you are trying to retain more oxygen by breathing quicker because you sense you are in danger. This causes your body to release hormones, like adrenaline, which will have effects that manifest as some of the symptoms above, like racing heartbeat and chest pain. This is what’s also known as ‘fight or flight mode’.
It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to suffer from a mental illness or disorder to have a panic attack.
How long do they last?
Most sources will say that the typical panic attack only lasts around 5-10 minutes. The short length of time of an attack, despite feeling like an eternity when you're stuck in them, is because of that fight or flight mode response, with the pain and peak of the attack happening in an incredibly acute period of time. Although that length is the average, plenty of people note experiencing attacks longer than that, up to about 20 minutes.
If I am having one, is something wrong with my body?
The cherry on top of panic attacks is that you will feel that you are in the thick of something catastrophically horrible happening to your body, like a heart attack or stroke or feel so bad that you might be dying. But the reality is that, although hard to remember in the moment, you are totally, totally fine. Panic attacks are caused by built up stress and anxiety, not because your body is failing you.
What can I do to stop them?
The sad news is that you may not be able to one hundred percent stop yourself from having panic attacks. This would be like saying you can stop all stress or anxiety in your life entirely, which we all know crops up out of our control. However, there are a lot of things you can do to decrease your chances of panic attacks and help yourself through them. The NHS recommends methods such as:
• breathing exercises
• decreasing caffeine, alcohol and smoking intake
• joining a support group
• regular exercise
• Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
These methods have proven results of decreasing panic attacks for those who experience them regularly. But do whatever works for you – trying to improve your physical help and letting your brain unwind will only do you good.
Panic attacks are painful and scary, but they are far from abnormal. Understanding what they are and where they come is the best way to start combating them and improving your mental health. And, of course, if you think you may need extra help you should get in touch with your GP.
- Words by Sarah Manavis.
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