The Who, What, When, Where, Why and How

Up to 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack at some stage in their life.

Picture this: It’s a typical day in your life and everything seems to be fine, and then your anxiety is triggered and suddenly you can’t breathe. You’re gasping for air, your heart is pounding out of your chest and your body feels tingly, sweaty and shaky. You fear you’re having a heart attack. You feel like you are dying.

Panic attacks (sometimes called an anxiety attack) can come out of nowhere, but they mostly are a result of high levels of anxiety triggered by a particular thought, feeling or situation. When panic attacks are recurrent, they can be debilitating and interfere with day to day life. However, there are a lot of practical strategies available to help people cope with panic attacks.

WHAT is a panic attack?

Have you ever turned up to the emergency room with what you thought was an asthma attack or a heart attack, only to discover it was a panic attack?

Woken up gasping for breath, heart racing and in a panic?

Felt increasingly anxious about an event that as you’re about to leave your house, you feel like your body is swallowing you up and you can’t breathe?

These are all examples of panic attacks.

A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense fear that reaches a peak within a minute or two. The sudden rush is usually accompanied by four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Upset stomach or nausea
  • Chills through the body or hot flushes
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Fear that you’re going crazy
  • Fear that you’re dying

You may also experience a feeling of unreality (derealisation) or being detached from yourself (depersonalisation).

WHO is at risk of panic attacks?

Like any health condition, physical or psychological, a family history is a good predictor of whether you may experience panic attacks. In particular, a family history of anxiety, depression or panic disorder increases your risk.

Other risk factors include:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Smoking
  • Interpersonal stress
  •  Stress related to physical wellbeing
  • Negative experiences with drugs (legal and/ or illegal)
  • A death in the family
  • Asthma (personal history or family history)

WHERE do panic attacks occur?

Panic attacks tend to occur in unexpected situations or expected situations, and the frequency of them can vary widely.

Expected panic attacks refer to panic attacks that occur when there is an obvious trigger, such as a situation or (anticipation of) an event where you already feel highly anxious. This may include public speaking, social events, or fear of expectations or disappointing someone.

Unexpected panic attacks tend to come out of the blue. These may occur when you are relaxing or waking from sleep (also known as nocturnal panic attacks).

WHEN do panic attacks happen?

It is rare for panic attacks to occur in children, with most people experiencing their first panic attack in late adolescence or their early twenties.

WHY are panic attacks a problem?

Anyone who has experienced a panic attack will understand how terrifying and unsettling they can be. However, for many people, it is the fear of having a panic attack that can be more burdensome than the panic attack itself.

You may find you avoid specific activities that will trigger a panic attack, for example being absent from work or failing to show up at social events. This can have an impact on your studies, employment and social life.

Some people avoid activities that mimic some of the symptoms of a panic attack such as physical activity. Running or exercising increases the heart rate and induces sweating and shortness of breath. People suffering from panic attacks may misinterpret these symptoms as the onset of another attack.

You may also worry that the symptoms of panic attacks are an indicator of a life-threatening illness such as cardiac disease or respiratory illness. This can result in frequent visits to the emergency room or to see your doctor.

A diagnosis of panic disorder may occur when panic attacks are recurrent and unexpected, followed by persistent worries about further attacks and significant avoidant behaviours.

Panic attacks are also associated with other mental health disorders such as agoraphobia, generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and mild alcohol use disorder.

HOW can you cope with a panic attack?

Panic attacks are usually treated with a combination of psychological interventions and lifestyle adjustments.

We’d like to share five tips for helping you to cope with panic attacks:

  1. Reduce caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant which can make anxiety worse by making you feel jittery, nervous and even cause heart palpitations. Caffeine may also trigger a panic attack.
  2. Sleep routine. Poor sleep habits can lead to sleep deprivation which can decrease your ability to cope with daytime stress. Try to go to bed at the same time each evening and wake at the same time each morning. Have a relaxing bedtime ritual such as a mug of hot milk, a warm bath or listen to calming music.
  3. Mindfulness and deep breathing. Panic attacks occur when your body’s arousal system is activated and negative thoughts often accompany it. By learning to calm your body (and reduce arousal), you are more likely to be in control of your thought processes and avoid a panic attack.
  4. Psychological therapies. A psychologist can help you understand yourself better, identify your triggers and support you to practice and learn new coping strategies to manage your anxiety. Interventions may include Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy and/ or mindfulness and meditation.
  5. Medication. In conjunction with psychological support, medication can be useful for some people with recurrent panic attacks and high levels of anxiety. Medication can help reduce arousal levels so that you can engage in therapy and learn skills to manage stress and panic attack triggers.

Want to get help for panic attacks?

If you believe you are suffering from panic attacks then seeing your GP is a good first step. They can refer you to a psychologist and recommend anti-anxiety medication. You can also self-refer to a private psychologist.

Ahead Psychology has experienced Brisbane- based psychologists who can help you manage your panic attacks. Call us on (07) 3352 3577 or  use our online Request a Booking form .