What is a panic attack?
Panic attacks induce intense fear. No danger is present, but the body and mind react as though it were, triggering frightening physical responses. Sufferers frequently believe they are experiencing a heart attack.
Some people may experience this condition once or twice, perhaps during stressful periods in their lives. For others, it is a recurrent challenge. The fear of sudden, unexpected panic attacks leads to a constant dread of another attack occurring.
Although panic attacks are not life-threatening, they are terrifying. Panic disorder has a significant impact on a sufferer’s quality of life.
The good news is that therapy for panic attacks can be highly effective.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
With a sudden onset, panic attacks can occur at any time. The fear of this makes a trip in the car, shop visit or a work meeting profoundly worrying for a sufferer. Panic attacks may be frequent or occasional. Even if the attacks themselves are infrequent, the knowledge that one could occur weighs heavily on a sufferer’s mind. Panic attacks can also occur during sleep.
Commonly, a panic attack will have some of the following symptoms:
- Rapid or pounding heartbeat
- Trembling hands
- Tingling sensation or numbness
- Hot flushes or chills
- Tightness in the throat
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Stomach cramps
- Chest pain
- A perception of being detached from reality
- A sense of looming danger
- Feelings of imminent doom or death
While symptoms may vary, panic attacks typically reach their peak in a matter of minutes, leaving a sense of extreme fatigue afterwards.
These symptoms can be indicators of other health problems. Potentially heart-related. Therefore anyone experiencing them must consult their GP. Do not self diagnose. A panic attack must be identified by a qualified health professional.
For a sufferer, perhaps the worst aspect of a panic attack is the overwhelming fear they will have another episode. This fear is so powerful that sufferers may begin avoiding situations they associate with the onset of panic. This strategy is both life-changing and limiting.
What causes panic attacks?
Currently, there is no definitive explanation for the cause of panic disorder. However, some factors are known:
- Genetic predisposition
- High levels of stress
- An outlook prone to negative feelings
- Changes in brain function
While panic attacks may arise suddenly and without warning, some sufferers discover situational triggering factors. However, these triggers may be association rather than cause. Places and circumstances in which an attack occurred are perceived to be the cause of the attack. Yet, while tension in the situation may have been a contributory factor at the time, it is frequently the mental association with the initial attack that turns similar circumstances into an ongoing trigger.
Scientific research indicates that the brain’s innate fight-or-flight response contributes to panic attacks. By nature, a human being responds instinctively rather than intellectually to certain high-stress events. The threat of attack, for instance, causes an increase in heart rate and rapid breathing. These preparations for life-threatening conditions are the same reactions that occur in panic attacks.
There is no entirely conclusive explanation for why panic attacks happen when no apparent danger is present. However, the steady accumulation of stress in our lives is a profound contribution. One useful analogy likens the mental and physical effects of stress to a bucket catching drips of water. Eventually, the bucket overflows. Just so, the steady drip of stress in modern life eventually causes an “overflow” experienced as a panic attack.
So too, in the mind of the sufferer, certain physical sensations can become associated with the onset of a panic attack. A feeling of tightness in the throat, shortness of breath or similar sensation becomes so associated with the experience of panic that the sufferer’s anxiety level spikes and a panic attack occurs. In other words, a panic attack happens because the sufferer fears that one is imminent.
Risk factors influencing the development of panic attacks
Panic attack symptoms frequently manifest during a suffer’s teenage years or early twenties. The condition affects a higher proportion of women than men. Other factors known to increase the risk of developing panic disorder involve:
- The death of a family member
- Serious illness
- Sexual assault
- Critical accidents
- Physical or sexual abuse in childhood
- Having family members who suffer from panic attacks
In addition to the above factors, smoking cigarettes and high levels of caffeine consumption increase the risk of panic attacks.
Panic disorder can spoil many opportunities in a sufferer’s life. Fear of having another attack becomes so overwhelming that it dominates thinking. Over time, a sufferer might begin to:
- Avoid social situations
- Develop problems in education, employment and finances
- Experience a phobic response to conditions associated with panic
- Develop depression or generalised anxiety
- Misuse alcohol or abuse other substances
Panic disorder can lead to an agoraphobic response. A sufferer may avoid places mentally associated with anxiety, fearing they might become trapped if a panic attack occurs.
How hypnotherapy can help with panic attacks
Hypnotherapy can help in several ways:
- By reducing overall anxiety
- Emptying a sufferer’s “stress bucket” so they have spare capacity for challenging situations
- Helping to unlink the cognitive connection with panic attacks a sufferer may have formed to particular sets of circumstances or places
- Helping a sufferer reorder their thinking, so physical sensations associated with an impending panic attack are recognised as natural, non-threatening bodily responses
- Encouraging positive physical activity and social interaction
Panic attacks are dreadful to experience, but with a gentle therapeutic approach that builds confidence while reducing stress, a sufferer can reclaim their life.
About Jon Creffield
Jon Creffield (HPD, DHP, DSFH) is a CNHC registered Solution Focused Hypnotherapist specialised in using relaxation, guided imagery and metaphor to help clients achieve life-enhancing changes. He is a member of the National Council For Hypnotherapy and the Association For Solution Focused Hypnotherapy. Jon is based in North Somerset near Bristol.… Read more
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