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Panic disorder and panic attacks

Panic attacks are a type of fear response, an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to perceived danger.

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder where you have sudden unexpected attacks of panic and fear. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at certain times, it’s a natural response to stressful or dangerous situations but someone with a panic disorder may experience panic attacks at any time and sometimes for no apparent reason

The word ‘panic’ means intense anxiety or intense fear, that horrible feeling of being on edge, out of control even thinking death is near.  It comes about when the stress response is activated. Panic attacks are a type of fear response, an exaggeration of your body’s normal response to perceived danger. The so-called fight/flight response kicks in, one of our most primitive basic responses to danger/threat.  Stay and fight or run away. Sometimes, panic can occur out of nowhere; you might feel an extreme sense of fear even though there might be nothing immediately obvious causing it. Living through a global pandemic has heightened this feeling - many of us are experiencing a constant anxiety and feeling of uncertainty which could trigger a panic attack.
  • Symptoms of panic attacks

    So how do you know you are having a panic attack? There are many symptoms and they vary from person to person.  They can include:

    • A change in breathing patterns such as breathing more quickly
    • Sweaty palms
    • A dry mouth,
    • Feeling dizzy or sick, tearful,
    • Suffering from chills, trembling, nausea or a churning stomach
    • Feeling disoriented or confused.
    • Feeling that you may faint
    • Feeling that you might be about to die - often panic attacks are mistaken for heart attacks

    Most panic attacks last between five and twenty minutes and the frequency of attacks varies. Some people have attacks once or twice a month while others have them several times each week.

    As these symptoms can also be indicative of other conditions ,  consider consulting your GP to rule out other conditions which may be causing them. Talking therapies and medicine are the main treatments for panic disorder and your treatment will depend on your symptoms and preferences.

    As one lawyer told us “I had a panic attack on the tube in London. I just started feeling like I was going to die. I managed to get myself off the train, sat down, was very sick and then recovered.”

    Another said “I was at work and was just suddenly overwhelmed by anxiety and started hyperventilating. An older colleague saw what was happening and got me breathing into a brown paper bag which helped me to recover”.

  • What you can do during a panic attack
    • Start to recognise the warning signs – what usually triggers your attacks?
    • Start breathing in slowly for 3 and out for 3 or longer if you feel you need to (you don’t need a brown paper bag)
    • Go and sit down
    • Tell yourself, this will pass
    • Remember it’s not life-threatening

    If you do find yourself in an at-risk situation, let your friends or colleagues know that this might happen and ask for their help, even if they just speak to you while you are experiencing the attack. Having someone with you for reassurance can help you calm down.

  • Preventing further attacks

    It may help to consider:

    • Accessing self-help information about anxiety based on principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
    • Adopting a healthy diet
    • Limiting alcohol and caffeine and stopping smoking if applicable
    • Having a regular exercise you enjoy
    • Engaging with others with the same condition
    • Meditation or complementary therapies to help you relax

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