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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.

What Are Anxiety Disorders and How Do They Affect Us?

What Are Anxiety Disorders and How Do They Affect Us?

We are no strangers to feelings of anxiety – at certain stages of our lives or in particular situations, we would have experienced anxiousness and worry with relation to our careers, studies, relationships and even our environment. However, anxiety levels may go beyond the healthy norm for some people, and may instead develop into anxiety disorders that may have a debilitating effect on their lives. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), an individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder is described to have “recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns”, where the duration and severity in which the individual experiences anxiety could be blown out of proportion to the original stressor, resulting in undesirable tension and other physical alterations. In this article, we will be exploring a few types of anxiety disorders as well as how they can manifest within us.

 

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a psychological issue characterised by persistent and pervasive feelings of anxiety without any known external cause. People who are diagnosed with GAD tend to feel anxious on most days for at least six months, and could be plagued by worry over several factors such as social interactions, personal health and wellbeing, and their everyday routine tasks. For example, an individual with GAD may find himself experiencing headaches, cold sweats, increased irritability and frequent feelings of “free-floating” anxiety. Others may also experience muscle tension, sleep disruptions or having difficulty concentrating. Often, the sense of anxiety may seemingly come from nowhere and last for long periods of time, therefore interfering with daily activities and various life circumstances.  

 

Panic Disorder

In contrast, Panic Disorders are characterised by the random occurrence of panic attacks that have no obvious connection with events that are co-occurring in the person’s present experience. This means that panic attacks could occur at any time, even when someone is casually enjoying a meal. Of course, panic attacks could also be brought on by a particular trigger in the environment, such as a much-feared object or situation. Some individuals have reported that panic attacks feel frighteningly similar to a heart attack, especially with the rapid increase in heart palpitations, and the accompanying shortness of breath. Other symptoms also include trembling, sweating, and feelings of being out of control. With these panic attacks bringing on sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety, it can be exceptionally terrifying when these attacks reach their peak within mere minutes. However, a notable difference between a panic disorder and GAD is that an individual diagnosed with panic disorder is usually free of anxiety in between panic attacks.  

 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a disorder marked by patterns of persistent and unwanted thoughts and behaviours. Obsessions are recurrent thoughts, urges or mental images that cause anxiety. On the other hand, compulsions are the repetitive behaviours that a person feels the urge to do in response to an obsessive thought or image. One common example often exhibited in films is where an individual has an obsessive fear of germs. This person may avoid shaking hands with strangers, avoid using public restrooms or feel the urge to wash their hands way too frequently. However, OCD isn’t purely limited to feelings of anxiety due to germs. OCD can manifest in other ways as well, such as wanting things to be symmetrical or in perfect order, repeatedly checking on things (“Did I leave my stove on?”), or the compulsive counting of objects or possessions. While everyone double-checks their things and has their own habits, people with OCD generally cannot control their thoughts and behaviours, even if they are recognised to be rather excessive. They can spend at least 1 hour a day on these thoughts and behaviours, and will only feel the much-needed brief sense of relief from their anxiety when they perform their rituals. As such, OCD can be exceptionally debilitating to one’s mental health.

 

Social Anxiety Disorder

Persons with Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD, experience high levels of anxiety and fear under particular or all social situations, depending on the severity of their condition. They are often afraid of being subjected to judgement, humiliation or rejection in public, causing them to feel embarrassed. As such, individuals with SAD may feel extra self-conscious and stressed out, and try to avoid social situations where they might be placed at the centre of attention.

 

Phobic Disorders

A phobia involves a pathological fear of a specific object or a situation. This means that one may experience intense anxiety upon encountering their fears and will take active steps to avoid the feared object. Phobias may centre on heights(acrophobia), birds (ornithophobia), crowds and open spaces(agoraphobia), and many others. People with agoraphobia, in particular, may struggle to be themselves in public spaces, for they think that it would be difficult to leave in the event they have panic-like reactions or other embarrassing symptoms. In severe cases, agoraphobia can cause one to be housebound. 

 

Options for the treatment of anxiety disorders include medication from a psychiatrist and therapy with a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor, and anxiety disorders can be treated with either one or both methods. While medication does not cure anxiety completely, it helps to relieve its symptoms, allowing the individual to cope better. Psychotherapy methods such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be particularly effective as well, for it aims to help victims of anxiety disorders change their way of thinking, behaving, and their way of reacting to certain anxiety-causing stimuli. 

 

It is important for us to recognise that seeking treatment for anxiety disorders is crucial, especially if it hinders or interferes with our daily life. While one may choose to adopt the “I can handle it myself” attitude – perhaps due to any pre-existing stigma or societal expectations –  we need to acknowledge that we will ultimately be worse off if we do not seek help early. Don’t struggle alone, talk to us about ways to manage your anxiety and find the support you need.

 


References:

  1. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety (Accessed 03/12/2020)
  2. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml (Accessed 03/12/2020)
  3. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml (Accessed 03/12/2020)
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