Cosmopolitan Column on How to Manage a Panic Attack
Q: Dear Athena, I had the most terrifying experience last week. I was out with my friends and we were having a great time until I started to feel dizzy and very hot. My hands were sweaty and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack but I’m so young so how is that even possible? Anyway, I felt nauseous and shaky. I thought I was going to die, right there on Long Street. Eventually my friends took me home. My friend told me that I may have had a panic attack (she’s studying to become a doctor). Can you please tell me if she is right and how I can manage this so that I don’t have another one? It was really a bad experience.
Hi Zanele, It sounds incredibly overwhelming and from what you’ve explained it does sound like you experienced a panic attack.
The good news is that it is absolutely treatable.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition) a panic attack is marked by a surge of intense fear and discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes (usually a 2- 4 min cycle) during which time 4 or more of the following symptoms must be present:
Pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.
Trembling or shaking.
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering.
Feeling of choking.
Chest pain or discomfort.
Nausea or abdominal distress.
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint.
Chills or heat sensations.
Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations).
Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).
Fear of losing control or going crazy.
Fear of dying.
Panic is generally caused by a combination of factors both biological (genetic disposition) and environmental (e.g. severe, long-standing stress).
When you experience a panic attack your fight or flight reflex is activated but the alarm is false.
That means that if you were in real danger (i.e. a robber was attempting to mug you) it would be normal to experience a fight or flight response.
However, you were not in any real danger so your experience of panic was a false activation of your natural fight or flight reflex.
It’s also helpful to note that you cannot pass out from a panic attack, nor can you die from one.
There is also a general tendency to want to avoid places or triggers that you may associate with your panic attacks.
This is natural but not helpful as avoidance serves to maintain panic rather than diminish it.
Stating to yourself that what you are experiencing is a false alarm can interrupt the panic cycle.
As Panic is a learnt fear of internal sensations it can be unlearnt.
This is good news as you can ‘unlearn’ this pattern of behaving through a highly effective form of therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
This form of therapy first works at restructuring your thoughts whilst reality testing your beliefs around panic and then moves on to interoceptive deconditioning.
That is a fancy term which in essence means that you learn how to lessen the physical sensations that you experience during a panic attack.
I hope this helps you!
If you have a question simply email or tweet me!
*Please note that this article does not serve as a diagnostic method. The best thing that you can do if you are experiencing four or more of these symptoms is to contact a qualified psychologist or GP who can help identify and treat your issue.