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What Are Panic Attacks and How To Manage?

What Are Panic Attacks and How To Manage?

Written by: Dr Elaine Yeo, Senior Clinical Psychologist

All of us have felt anxiety at some point in our lives, whether before a big test, public speaking, or a job interview. Anxiety is a perfectly normal emotion that serves the purpose of motivating us to prepare for a big event or protect ourselves from potentially dangerous situations. However, too much anxiety may put us at the risk of experiencing panic attacks. In this article, we will discuss the symptoms, causes, and strategies for managing panic attacks. 

 What are panic attacks?

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense anxiety and fear that triggers strong physiological reactions. These reactions can feel so intense that the individual feels as though they are having a heart attack. Common symptoms of a panic attack include but are not limited to:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy

It is important to note that panic disorder can develop if an individual starts to fear the panic attack itself (i.e., worrying about when the next panic attack may happen or avoiding situations and places when the panic attack occurred). 

What causes panic attacks?

Similar to anxiety, anyone can experience a panic attack. However, some of us may be more prone than others. Several factors play a role in increasing our risk for panic attacks:

  • Family history: Anxiety often runs in families. If you have a family member who has a diagnosed anxiety disorder or, tends to experience anxiety more intensely and frequently than others, you would be at a higher risk for panic attacks. 
  • Mental health issues: Individuals experiencing burnout, intense anxiety, depression, or any form of mental illness are more prone to panic attacks. 
  • Traumatic experiences: A past or recent experience of trauma can result in our bodies remaining in constant “fight-or-flight” mode—the physiological reaction of anxiety and fear—which may then increase the likelihood of panic attacks.
  • Substance abuse: Addiction to substances such as alcohol, drugs, and caffeine can put us at a higher risk for panic attacks. 

How to manage panic attacks? 

If you are experiencing panic attacks at an intensity and frequency that is distressing and debilitating, please seek professional help. Panic attacks can be treated with talk therapy, psychotropic medication, or a combination of both. If not, here are a few ways to manage panic attacks: 

  • Stay calm: It is important to remember that while panic attacks can be scary and extremely uncomfortable, they will not cause you to die. When a panic attack comes, notice and name it as a panic attack, and remind yourself, “It’s just a panic attack, it will pass.” For those of you who are unsure if it may be a medical issue, please see a doctor to rule out such concerns first. 
  • Practice grounding exercises: Grounding is a useful technique that helps us to detach from our anxiety, often with an added calming effect. It works best with regular practice, even when you are not experiencing a panic attack, so that muscle memory can kick in when you most need it. Examples of grounding include:
    • Notice the environment around you with all your five senses, such as what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Describe this to yourself, either mentally or quietly out loud. 
    • Carry a grounding object (e.g., a rock, gem, ring, small toy) in your pocket. Hold the object and notice its size, shape, texture, and temperature of it. 
    • Engage in slow, deep 4-2-4 breathing – inhale for four counts, hold your breath for two counts, exhale for four counts. You may also focus on your breath and notice the feel of the air entering your nostrils, the movement of your shoulders, chest, and stomach as you breathe, the feel of the air coming out of your mouth. 
  • Avoid caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant that can activate your body’s “fight-or-flight” response. Adding caffeine to your anxiety-ridden body would be akin to throwing a lit stick of dynamite into a house on fire. 

Overall, please remember that the presence of panic attacks indicates high levels of anxiety. They are our body’s way of telling us that it is at its limit. Should you experience one, it would be helpful for you to reflect on your stress and anxiety levels, identify any triggers and manage them, as well as ensure that you engage in your self-care routine and practice adaptive coping strategies.