Panic attacks are terrifying, one of the most intense states you can experience. They are sudden and accompanied by a variety of physical symptoms including tingling in the hands and feet, shaking, trembling, sweating, dizziness, feeling weak or like you are going to faint, shortness of breath, choking sensations, or heart palpitations. Psychological fears include fear of dying, fear of losing control, fear of severe illness. These fears cause can lead to feelings of unreality, a strong impulse to run away, or a freeze response. The experience of one attack can precipitate a pattern of reoccurrence, a panic disorder. Panic disorders occur in about one out of seventy five people and usually begin in the late teens or early twenties.
Although extremely uncomfortable, panic attacks are not dangerous. The body mind reaction is part of a built in mechanism in the body called the fight or fight reaction, a survival mechanism millions of years old. This instinct prepares you to fight or flee in a potentially dangerous situation. It mobilizes the body to withdraw energy from non essential areas of the body and focus them on the areas required to survive an emergency situation.
There are short term and long term strategies that are essential for responding to panic attacks. Behavior patterns frequently develop in reaction to the feared state and can increase the likelihood of developing the panic habit. Although you may only have one attack, or periodic attacks every few years, you may also be one of the people who begins to have them in increasing frequency and duration and develops a panic disorder.
Specific changes in lifestyle can affect the likelihood of panic reoccurring.
1. Exercise: Research has shown that increased levels of physical activity can prevent panic attacks as well as antidepressants. People who exercise are less likely to experience anxiety disorders in general. People who work out regularly have improved blood flow to the brain and improved mood. A combination of aerobic, stretching and strength training is recommended. This increases energy, distracts from the worry habit that feeds anxiety, lowers stress levels in the body and mind, and releases the feel-good chemicals in the body.
2, Relaxation: The relaxation experience is at the opposite end of the spectrum from anxiety. Although research has not shown an improvement in the treatment rate of panic disorder patients when relaxation is combined with the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Desensitization, the use of relaxation in treatment has been found to assist in the recovery process. Relaxation exercises include breath training, progressive muscle relaxation training, and visualization. Some treatment methodologies employ a biofeedback type of training that involves learning a new style of breathing that can counter the tendency to hyperventilate during the panic attack itself.
3. Reevaluation of mistaken beliefs/ Demystify the condition : The initial phase of treatment for anxiety disorders usually involves an educational process where the fears an individual experiences about having panic attacks are dispelled by facts. The essential experience of panic is a lack of control over the body which leads to fears of death, losing control and illness. Education about the factors that contribute to the origin and reoccurrence of panic are helpful. Information regarding the tendency to overestimate the danger and threat of a panic attack is an integral part of cognitive therapy which has been shown to be highly effective in the treatment of panic disorder.
4. Supportive self talk: What an individual says to him or herself prior to and during a panic attack can be helpful or hurtful. Misinterpretation of the symptoms experienced during an attack increase the likelihood of the reoccurrence of the attack. Supportive self talk that is based on a more realistic estimation of the situation and that assists the panicked individual in either heading off or shortening the experience can be learned. Combined with the use of proper breathing, the person with a tendency to panic can prevent much of the panic normally experienced. The use of phrases such as ‘so what’ , and ‘this is just anxiety and I am not going to let it get to me’ are helpful forms of self talk that can minimize the escalation of the uncomfortable symptoms experienced.
5. Float: Attempting to resist or fight the possibility of anxiety can exacerbate the likelihood of it occurring. Claire Weeks developed a four-step approach for coping with panic that includes facing the symptoms rather than running away from or fighting them. She suggests floating through the process of the escalation of symptoms in the body, allowing time to pass so that the adrenalin-based symptoms can naturally abate and the body can calm itself down. If the fear is not fed by self talk like ‘I can’t handle this’ or ‘something bad will happen,’ panic will begin to subside in a few minutes as the adrenalin released in a panic attack is reabsorbed into the body. The key to this floating through process is developing the ability to take an observer’s stance and step back from the experience, to observe the body’s reaction without reacting to it. The use of phrases such as ‘this too will pass’ or ‘this is not dangerous’ can be both reassuring and supportive in the process of moving through a panic attack.
A structured approach to the treatment of anxiety after a thorough assessment is the best approach to the resolution of this condition. A course of medication can assist the panic disorder sufferer in recovery, however research on methods such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy have been shown non pharmaceutical approaches to be equally effective. This is a treatable condition. Successful strategies can be learned and practiced that can prevent the reoccurrence of panic attacks.