February 6, 2024

Am I Having a Panic Attack?

Scenario: It’s Tuesday evening, 11pm - you’re staring at the screen of your laptop, the word processing cursor is blinking at you from the same spot where you were staring at it 2 hours ago. The deadline for this extremely important project is tomorrow, 8 am (followed by a presentation in front of even more important board members at 9), and you’re not even halfway finished. You’re starting to realise that you may not get this done on time.

You can feel your mouth going dry. Your face is getting hot and your hands start shaking. Your heart feels like it’s beating at a thousand beats per minute and you fear you may have a heart attack. A feeling of unprecedented dread comes over you.

Chances are, you are not having a heart attack, but a much less dangerous (albeit extremely distressing) panic attack.

Panic attacks are caused by anxiety, and are your body’s way of alerting you that there is danger present, either real or imagined. You are now in what is known as “fight-or-flight” mode, which is a natural physiological reaction that can give you an overwhelming urge to run away (or to stay and fight). (Kendra Cherry, 2018)

Panic attacks usually last anything from a few minutes to half an hour and can be extremely unpleasant. But how can you recognise if what you’re experiencing is really a panic attack, and what are some of the things you can do to manage them?

Signs and symptoms of a panic attack

  1. You have a feeling of loss of control of your environment

Perhaps you find your thoughts racing, your brain immediately takes you through several catastrophic scenarios outlining what will (or won’t happen) if you, for instance, don’t get your assignment in on time or get hold of that important client before the end of the day. You may feel disconnected from your environment and you may experience difficulties concentrating on the present moment

  1. You start feeling hot, sweaty and dizzy.

Your palms may get sweaty, you can feel the heat rising in your face and you feel woozy. Or you could feel your face draining of colour, and experience an ‘icy’ sensation in the pit of your stomach. Perhaps you start feeling nauseous.

  1. You experience difficulties breathing, or shortness of breath, and your heartbeat goes up.

You may notice your breathing becoming increasingly shallow, with more inflation of the chest than usual. Perhaps you notice your heart beating significantly faster and your hands (or other parts of your body) are shaking.

How can I deal with a panic attack?

Like we said before, panic attacks can be very unpleasant and frightening, but are usually not dangerous and there are things you can do to manage your symptoms and regain your composure.

  1. Target your breathing.

Panic attacks can alter how you breathe, with our breaths becoming more frequent and shallow. One way of managing a panic attack can be to try and steady your breathing through breathing exercises. One breathing exercise you can try is to through your nose, as slowly as possible, and breathing out through your mouth. As you’re trying this, see if you can inflate more of your belly on the inbreath so that the breath moves from being concentrated around your chest to further down towards the abdomen.You can also try to count from 1 to 5 during the in-breath (so 5 seconds to breathe in) and 1 to 5 on the outbreath (so 5 seconds to breathe out).

  1. Labelling

Another technique can be to be label things that you see around you, as a way of shifting your focus away from panic onto tangible things you can see. For instance, you can look around the room and concentrate on what you see. Either mentally or out loud, name the things you can see. For instance, “I see a plant in the corner. The plant is green with crinkled leaves. I see a painting on the wall. It depicts a kitten playing with a duck”, etc.

  1. Identifying what makes you panic

Are you experiencing panic attacks quite often? If this is a recurring problem, it may be worth exploring what situations tend to overwhelm you, how you respond to them and what you could potentially do to manage them in a more helpful way. Sometimes it can be hard to do this on your own. There are plenty of therapies that can help you deal with panic attacks. Do a search in your area to find out what (professional) help is available and how you may benefit. Alternatively, you can speak to your GP who will be able to point you in the right direction.

Remember, feeling overwhelmed and anxious is a natural part of being human. However, as it is not the most unpleasant experience to have, it can be helpful to take a few moments to figure out what is going on and how you can manage in the best possible way next time.

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