After listening to clients describing panic attacks over the years I can understand how the anticipation of having another one can generate an overall sense of panic by itself.
When experiencing a panic attack the body goes through a series of symptoms that can be difficult to manage and all seem to be happening at once and with short notice. Most people will report feeling breathless, nauseated and restless. The intensity of the panic attacks and the length can vary but they are all equally scary and most people feel fear and uncertainty long after the panic attack ended.
It is not uncommon that when experiencing their first panic attack the person will call an ambulance or go to the emergency department of a hospital. The symptoms of a panic attack can be similar to the ones of a heart attack and for all intents and purposes it is good to rule out any heart conditions. But when you are finally given the diagnosis and explanation that what happened to you was a panic attack, the next question for most is trying to understand why and how it happened and if is going to happen again.
The answer to these questions are often not straight forward and the most important is to understand how to manage the anxiety that generated the panic attack.
People don’t always discuss in the open these experiences because they may feel embarrassed or they may not know how to explain it to others that never had experienced a panic attack. However at least 5% of the population will experience a panic attack at some stage so they are not so uncommon. I remember being on a flight and the passenger behind me was clearly experiencing a panic attack just before take-off. Her partner knew exactly what to do and he held her hand tight while giving her instructions of how to breathe and took her through a relaxation exercise. After a short time she calmed down and was fine for the rest of the flight.
Panic attacks come and go and are associated with stress and fear. They don’t cause death and they don’t make people ‘crazy’. The anticipation of having another panic attack and the ongoing worrying that it is going to happen anywhere and at any time can be the main factor for increasing anxiety and stress.
One of my favourite books: “Living with It” by Bev Aisbett, makes it very easy to understand panic attacks. This book describes the recipe for a panic attack better that anyone could ever do it. The book refers to panic attacks as “It”:
“Recipe for an IT”
4 truckloads of guilt
16 cups of should
4 bags of perfectionism
12 Busloads of criticism (self or outside)
10 barrels of low self-esteem
20 tonnes of negative thoughts
80 kilos of exaggeration
1 football field worth of worrying
Large pinch of sense of failure
1 period of insomnia
Combine with any of the following:
1 major life change
1 or more relationship problems
1 or more drug experience
1 prolonged period of tension
1 set of gynaecological problems/hormonal changes
1 inability to relax
1 ridiculous work load
1 unhappy childhood
1 set of sexual problems
1 family member with Panic Disorder or Anxiety Condition
1 biological predisposition
“Ingredients may vary with each individual”
Allow mixture to simmer for most of a lifetime.
After reading the above recipe you can understand how this disorder can be easily experienced by many people but the most important point is that you come to terms with the fact that you have experienced ‘it’ and that you learn to accept what happened. Accepting does not mean that you will be happy about it or that you will be doing nothing to manage it. Acceptance has to do more with becoming aware of how your body and mind responded to stress and anxiety so you can work towards reducing that stress and anxiety.
If you think about a panic attack as a quick storm with lightening and heavy rain you may find this analogy useful. The storm slowly generates in the skies but we only see it when it is happening but if we learn more about the weather and pressure and meteorology we may be able to anticipate and observe the changes as they are happening. Knowing that the storm is coming can help us to get ready or to allow it to happen without stressing because we knew that it was coming and we are carrying an umbrella. Panic attacks are often rapid and short like storms.
Learning breathing exercises and practising them when you are feeling well can help you to calm down and recover quickly after a panic attack but can also help you to reduce the anxiety that can contribute to a panic attack. Working on recognising your worries and stresses is probably a good start when trying to reduce anxiety. Identifying unhelpful thoughts and looking for alternative options to what you thought at the first time can also be a good exercise to practice. If you struggle to work this out yourself you may need to consider seeing a psychologist to help you with this work.
For more information about anxiety and panic disorder see this link http://resources.beyondblue.org.au/prism/file?token=BL/0384