Some of us may have experienced panic attacks or have experienced some symptoms of it in the past, yet this term may be unfamiliar to some. Today we will be introducing to you some symptoms, misconceptions and tips for panic attacks, as well as how to help someone who is experiencing a panic attack.
What is a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are fear responses created by the hormone adrenaline, which is produced by the adrenal glands as a response to danger, stress and excitement. This prepares the body for a “fight or flight” response, increasing heart rate and boosting delivery of oxygen and glucose to muscles. During panic attacks, some brain regions become hyperactive, including the amygdala, the “fear center”. This results in an over-stimulation of the adrenal glands and overproduction of adrenaline, which leads to an exaggerated response in muscles, causing a panic attack.
Symptoms of panic attacks vary for everyone, but they are all sudden and extremely disruptive. They could include:
- Heart palpitations and/or racing heartbeat
- Choking and/or feelings of suffocation
- Chest pain and/or feelings of restraint in chest area
- Dizziness, loss of balance, and lightheadedness
Panic attacks also frequently include sudden paranoia of death or losing control as these symptoms may feel like heart attacks to some.
Panic Attack vs Anxiety Attacks
There are many misconceptions surrounding panic attacks and anxiety attacks as, frankly, not a lot of mental health education systems inform us on their similarities and differences, since both include symptoms of rapid heartbeat, dizziness and breathlessness and neither can directly lead to death.
However, they do have their differences; panic attacks are sudden and extreme, while anxiety attacks have symptoms that generally intensify over a period of time, for example: disturbed sleep and muscle tension. While helping someone with a panic attack, it is important to be able to distinguish it from an anxiety attack in order to take the right measures.
The 54321 Grounding Method
This method is extremely effective and recommended by a lot of psychologists as it distracts the person suffering from a panic attack from their trauma with their five senses. Ask the person to name:
- 5 things they can see
- 4 things they can touch
- 3 things they can hear
- 2 things they can smell
- 1 thing they can taste
Be sure to let them take their time and not rush them, as hurrying would only make them more anxious and worsen their attack.
Ways to Decrease the Intensity of the Attack
Guided imagery could be a useful way to bring down the intensity of the attack. Here are some examples of them:
1. Helping them visualise a safe place.
If you are close with this person, try describing a place they would feel safe in in detail. This could be their home, their bedroom, or something fantastical and imaginary. Describe the sounds and visuals of the place, and ask them to picture themselves being there.
2. Tuning down an imaginary “emotion dial”.
Ask the person to imagine turning down the “volume” of their emotions by slowly switching off a dial. This helps them face their emotions head-on, tackling the core of the problem - their feelings of anxiety and fear.
Other Ways to Help
1. Guiding someone suffering from a panic attack through breathing exercises can also help them feel like they have control over their body, as well as reduce heart palpitations and slow down one’s heart rate, ultimately calming them down. To do this, ask them to breathe in for five counts then breathe out for another five. Try doing this with them as it could help them feel like they’re not alone.
2. Comfort them by assuring that they are not in any imminent danger. As panic attack symptoms can feel like heart attacks, some may think they are suffering from them and think they are in danger. This further heightens their fear, worsening their panic attack. To prevent this, comforting sentences like “panic attacks always pass” and “symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening” could help calm them.
3. Stay calm. Panicking when not knowing how to handle the situation will only make it worse for the sufferer as seeing your panicked reaction would make them feel like they’re doing something wrong, worsening the panic attack and creating feelings of guilt. If you’re unsure on what to do, simply let them know you’re there for them by rubbing their back, giving them a hug or holding their hand.
How To Deal With Recurring Panic Attacks
Many doctors and psychologists have suggested exercising regularly can reduce frequency and intensity of chronic panic attacks. Exercises as simple as jogging or running have been proven to be very beneficial as it helps you learn how to control their breathing. Regular exercise also reduces the body’s physical reaction to anxiety as it helps lessen the fight or flight response, reducing chances of exaggerated muscle responses to adrenaline.
Bringing a familiar object with sentimental value can also help patients with recurring panic attacks. This could be a smooth stone, a small toy, a keychain et cetera. When a panic attack occurs, try focusing on the object - its texture, where it came from, memories associated with it and so on. This will help ground you by making you focus on physical sensations and familiar memories.
What Not To Do
It is crucial to know what not to do when someone is having a panic attack as though it may come from good intentions, some actions may worsen their attack or make them feel worse about it. Here’s what to avoid when trying to help:
1. Invalidating their distress by saying that “it’s not a big deal”. This creates a fear of judgement from others and a feeling that outsiders have difficulties understanding them, making them reluctant to open up or seek help later on.
2. Saying “you have no reason to be nervous”. The person suffering from a panic attack most likely knows that they’re in a safe environment that poses no threat, but they are unable to control their triggered fight or flight response. Saying this would only cause frustration.
3. Saying “calm down”. They have no control over their fight or flight response, so saying this would make them feel misunderstood and potentially worsen their panic attack as they realise their lack of control over their own body.
All in all, if you’re not sure what to say, try to focus on actions instead. A simple hug or pat on their back may make them feel better, but saying the wrong things will only worsen the situation.
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Researcher: Sylvia Yip, Thumbnail: Cassandra Lui, Editor+Text Transcription: Megan Kwok