Suddenly your lunch is churning. A few minutes ago you felt fine, but now your stomach is a washing machine and you are scouring the exits for the nearest washroom. You feel a hot flush rise from your neck as your underarms are soaked in sweat. You look down and your hands are trembling. Your chest starts constricting and it feels like you can’t get enough oxygen in. “No… no… not again” you think. You look around, no one seems to notice the war going on inside you. They all look so calm, all put together and in control. “Not like me,” you think. You begin taking deeper and deeper breaths, trying to get the oxygen in and this just makes you dizzier. Someone notices you and says something like “Stop panicking…..Calm down”, but you couldn’t catch all of it, all you know is that you’re choking and it’s terrifying.
You’ve just experienced the beginning of a panic attack. Panic attacks can be extremely frightening and exhausting, but around half the population will experience at least one in their lifetime. “Most panic-disorder patients report they are terrified of physical symptoms such as shortness of breath or dizziness,” says Alicia E. Meuret, psychologist and panic disorder expert. Imagine if you had to endure several of these a week or even a few per day! This is the life of many who have been diagnosed of panic disorder.
What is a panic disorder?
Panic disorder is when you experience recurring, unpredictable and intense panic attacks. You worry about having more panic attacks or constantly think about what might be causing these attacks (e.g. undiagnosed mental health problems). One thing is for sure, you might have to avoid activities such as strenuous exercise if it triggers your disorder.
What characterizes panic attacks from other types of anxiety problems is that they seemingly have no trigger. “Often, when you don’t know the physiological signs of a panic attack you may feel more scared imagining you’re having a heart attack,” says Annie Wright, LMFT. To the person experiencing them, these attacks come unannounced and intensify very quickly. It can include symptoms such as nausea, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, lightheadedness, fear of losing control or fear of dying and sometimes, feelings of the unreality or being disconnected from your body or surroundings. Understandably, this can be very confronting and as an illness, panic disorder can be debilitating.
What causes panic disorder?
No single cause has been found for panic disorder, but there are a number of things that can contribute to its development such as family history, certain health conditions (e.g. heart problems and asthma), temperament and negative life experiences, like extended periods of stress and trauma.
Is there any way I can manage panic disorder and panic attacks?
One of the first ways in managing panic disorder is recognizing that the symptoms you are experiencing have a purpose and even though you may feel that something is physically wrong with you, panic attacks are not harmful. A certain amount of anxiety is normal and at times, it is actually required.
For example, if there was a threat to your life… let’s say a hungry lion walked into the room right now, and your chance of survival would be much higher if you could either fight the lion or run from it. This requires physical preparation of your body (e.g. increased blood to legs and arms and a slowdown of the digestive system) which in turn causes many of the same symptoms of a panic attack (clammy hands and feet, thumping heart, dizziness, and shortness of breath). This all occurs automatically when threatened and is designed to keep you alive – BUT when you experience a panic attack, the body has this automatic response even when there is no threat present. Your brain then misinterprets the changes in your body as dangerous (e.g. your heart speeds up and your brain thinks you are having a heart attack).
Now that you know these symptoms are not harmful, you can work on getting used to them so that next time your heart speeds up or you get breathless, your mind doesn’t trick you into being afraid. This is always best done with a professional through counseling. There is a range of psychological and medical treatments that a qualified professional can provide to help you conquer these attacks and get your life back on track again. Contact your GP to find out how to access a psychologist or psychiatrist and how they can help you with this.
Is there anything I can do myself though?
“If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know it can be both a terrifying experience and exhausting experience,” says Dina Cagliostro, PhD. Panic disorder is caused by your brain misinterpreting normal body responses as threats and so, the best way to overcome this is to teach your brain that these responses are nothing to be afraid of. Something that can help with this is relaxation, as it can reduce your anxiety just enough to allow you to “sit through” the feelings – teaching your brain not to be afraid of it. There are a number of ways you can calm down and that includes slow breathing and muscle relaxation.