What To Do If You're Having A Panic Attack

As many as 40% of Australians will have a panic attack at any time in their lives, so it’s likely it will happen to you, or someone you love, soon enough. It can be a pretty terrifying experience, so Women’s Health spoke to registered psychologist and SANE Australia Help Centre Manager Suzanne Leckie about what you should do if, but more likely when, you have one.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is most easily defined by the physical symptoms that happen. Generally, for whatever reason, and the triggers can be clear or triggers can be mysterious, but the body will switch into fight or flight mode, which is basically a survival mechanism from back in the day when threats were mostly physical.

The heart starts racing, breathing becomes shallow and fast, there might be trembling and sometimes in the more severe panic attacks there can be chest pains which can then set someone down the path of a whole other cycle of panic based on that.

Is it related to a disorder or condition or can they just happen as a standalone event?

I was interested to learn recently that as many as 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack at any time, and the condition it’s most commonly related to is anxiety but anxiety rates are sitting around 15%, so clearly there are an awful lot of people experiencing panic attacks completely apart from any other diagnosis. We know that there are some kinds of genetic predisposition which might make someone more likely to experience one but that’s certainly not the case for everyone.

What should you do if you feel these symptoms coming on?

First of all knowing what’s happening is really key, because I think the first few times it happens people get very concerned that it’s a heart attack or something physical that’s potentially life threatening.

So once you do realise that this is in fact a panic attack and recognise these symptoms, really what you need to do is make sure you’re in a safe place – if you’re driving, pull over if possible – just make sure you’re somewhere safe, and start to control your breathing because you breath really is the key to moving through this experience and getting to the other side of it.

In general they only last about ten minutes, but a combination of slow deep breathing, inhaling right down into your lower belly and exhaling for a little bit longer. So if you’re breathing in for three seconds, count out for four. Accompany that with calming self talk, tell yourself that you’re safe, that everything is fine, that you’re having a panic attack, that you’re going to be ok, that combination of breath and self talk can be quite powerful in calming you down and moving you through it as quickly as possible.

What should you do if they are happening frequently? 

I think if this is becoming a frequent experience you should definitely go and talk to your GP because it might well there there is an underlying anxiety condition that needs to be treated and there are a variety of treatments available – for some they can take medication for a period of time, for others they might undertake cognitive behavioural therapy where you’ll learn to work with your thoughts and the way you act in order to overcome it in the long run.

For more information about anxiety, please visit www.sane.org or call the SANE Helpline on 1800 187 263.

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