Have you ever found yourself in a situation such as in an elevator or on a plane when suddenly you felt extreme fear? Then did you notice shaking, sweating and the feeling like you can’t get enough air? By this stage, your heart is beating loud and fast, and then dizziness kicks in and it feels like the entire place is spinning, making you feel like throwing up? The worst thing is you don’t even know what just happened or what triggered such an awful incident.
You actually experienced panic attack!
What Causes Panic Attack Symptoms?
An abrupt and unexpected onset of intense fear and strong physical sensations usually lasting 3 to 5 minutes and subsiding within 10 minutes are the characteristics of a panic attack. Its definite cause is still unknown. However, research indicates many factors that contribute to the development of panic attacks.
Has anyone in your family ever had a problem with panic attack or anxiety? If YES, this means that you might have inherited it. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH): “Panic disorder runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it, while others don’t.”
Other contributing factors are brain disease or abnormality and substance abuse (alcohol or drugs). Moreover, severe STRESS brought by unpleasant life events such as losing a loved one, job or having divorce also trigger panic attacks or even pleasant yet stressful major life events such as getting into college or having a baby.
Sometimes, you might even have a fear of having another panic attack, which can lead to avoiding the situation where the panic attack happened, like the elevator, the party or the airport. However, it’s not the situation that trigger the panic attacks, it’s an overactive nervous system. Consequently, you tend to confine yourself at home or your have avoid public places and social events, especially in areas where you had a panic attack before.
The info graphic above shows several manifestations associated with panic attack symptoms. To better understand how panic attack symptoms occur, learn how the fight or flight response works.
The Fight or Flight Response (FOFR)
Are you familiar with adrenaline rush? Excitement or sense of danger causes adrenalin surge. It is associated with our fight or flight response(FOFR), the natural survival instinct of our body that prepares us to manage the threat. The body releases adrenaline and other chemicals when we are faced with some form of threat to our physical safety.
For example, if you are walking down the street and faced with a large dog, your FOFR produces a variety of chemical changes within the autonomic nervous system to prepare you to ‘fight’ the dog or turn around and ‘flight’ (run) from the danger. Within seconds, your heart rate increases to pump blood into the major muscle groups to prepare you to either fight or flight. The blood is taken away from your non-essential processes, such as digestion, in order to move to the major muscle groups. Your breathing increases to get more oxygen into the blood flow. Sugars are released into the bloodstream to give you a burst of energy. Your senses (touch, sight, smell, hearing, perception of time) become heightened, so you are alert to your surroundings. Your body temperature increases; therefore, your perspiration also increases to cool down the body. This process occurs within a very short period of time in order to prepare you to fight or flight the danger. This process is essential to protect us from physical danger. However, it is not so helpful when the FOFR is set off within a situation where there is no immediate physical danger.
External vs. Internal Threat
The above example highlights the role of the ‘fight or flight response’ in relation to physical danger or an external threat such as a dog or a car accident. However, an internal or perceived threat also triggers the FOFR. There are times we may perceive a threat not to our life but to the quality of our life (i.e. our integrity, reputation, health), which is enough to trigger the FOFR. A panic attack is the natural FOFR being set off by a perceived danger or an internal threat.
Have you ever felt anxious before a presentation at work, a job interview or an important meeting? Feeling anxious is normal and helps you to prepare and plan for that event. Too much anxiety and your body moves into overdrive. In the lead up to the interview, you may have noticed a lot of worry about what questions they would ask, if you would get the job, what would happen if you said the wrong thing. All this worry activates your FOFR. So on the day, you notice that your hands are trembling and sweating, that you can’t remember your own name let alone what you did at your last job and you feel as if you will faint at any moment. This is your FOFR trying to protect you from an internal threat.
Anticipatory Anxiety and Avoidance
In fact, having panic attack symptoms in an elevator, as what has been described earlier, can create fear of using the elevator. Hence, you would rather use the stairs despite the comfort and ease that the elevator offers. It is not the elevator itself that makes you panic, but the thought that you might have another panic attack when you are inside the elevator just like the last time.
For a more efficient way of managing your panic attack symptoms, apply the following strategies:
5 Coping Strategies for Panic Attack Symptoms
Whether you had experienced panic attack symptoms just once or repeatedly, it has debilitating effects to your self-confidence and daily life activities. You might get terrified of being in public places as you are scared to have panic attack symptoms anytime. You will always refuse to do business presentation or event participation because you are extremely threatened that you would pass out due to nervousness. Panic attack problem can disrupt your social life and can even hinder your career development. However, there are strategies to cope up with panic attack symptoms.
1. Acknowledge that you are experiencing panic attack symptoms.
Acknowledge that the sensations you are experiencing are from a fight or flight response, that you are not having a heart attack and that it is uncomfortable, and it will eventually pass- even if you do nothing. Acknowledging the FOFR as your natural survival instinct going off at the wrong time helps to reduce the fear associated with panic attack symptoms.
2. Practice controlled breathing.
Controlled breathing works in two ways, as a distraction technique and to slow down the FOFR. Slowing down your breathing slows down your heart rate which then slows down the other symptoms of the FOFR. Focusing on your breathing also serves as a distraction technique as it takes the attention off the panic sensations.
3. Apply relaxation techniques and spend time on leisure activities.
Frequent stressful situation can increase your general level of arousal during everyday functioning. This can lead to panic attack symptoms appearing to come out of the blue, however in reality your general level of anxiety was high to start with. Regular relaxation will help to reduce your everyday anxiety levels and reduce tension within the body, allowing you to become more aware of warning signs of a panic attack occurring.
4. Use cognitive strategies to reduce frequency of panic attacks
Identifying a particular anxiety provoking thought and challenging these beliefs can assist to reduce the frequency of panic attacks. Monitor your thinking for unhelpful thoughts about situations and events and challenge these views. Distraction techniques can also be helpful; for example, counting backwards from 1000 in 7’s or thinking of an animal or name for each letter of the alphabet.
5. Try using coping statements when confronted by panic attack symptoms
Use a coping statement prior to events, where you experience anticipatory anxiety. Examples include, “I can cope.” “It’s only my fight or flight response.” “It is uncomfortable however it will pass.” “I expect to feel anxious; however I can cope with that.”
For professional help in managing your panic attack symptoms and other behavioural health concerns, you may CONSULT me (Emma Boucher) at Gold Coast (07) 5522 8902
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: When Unwanted Thoughts Take Over – National Institute of Health (NIH)
Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-when-unwanted-thoughts-take-over
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