Getting to know Panic Attacks
While most people have heard of panic attacks, those who have not experienced it may find it hard to understand how frightening it can be. A panic attack is not just an intense feeling of anxiety, but rather a blast of terror that the brain produces only for truly frightening events. Panic attacks are also often associated with intense physical reactions, which often lead those experiencing them to falsely identify them as a serious health issue. Although they are relatively common, panic attacks are often not fully understood. Many suffer unnecessarily because they are unaware that what they are experiencing is mainly psychological rather than physical and that there is an effective treatment for it.
The first and most important thing to know about panic attacks is that they are not dangerous. Panic attacks are experienced as dangerous because they activate the emergency system in our brain, which thinks us in immediate danger. A bit like placing a fire alarm near a toaster, the security system in our brain releases false alarm during panic attacks.
Secondly, panic attacks are treatable and respond extremely well to the right type of treatment. Because panic attacks are unpleasant and often look like a medical problem, people often assume that some kind of medication is the proper and effective treatment. While panic attacks can occur during the course of a disorder for which they do require drugs, the treatment of a panic attack itself generally does not require medication. In fact, some medicines given to fight anxiety, when prescribed for panic attacks, can end up, in the long run, hindering a full recovery.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is an episode of intense fear that usually culminates in ten minutes and appears to lack any real risk. Unlike stress, which derives from the feeling that something bad is likely to happen, panic usually involves a sense that something terrible is happening right now. The focus of panic may vary greatly, but people who experience a panic attack often fear dying, going crazy, or losing control.
Due to the fact that panic includes the concept of a current or imminent danger, the brain triggers the "flight" reaction. This is the reaction which nature has endowed us with so that we can get out of life-threatening situations. This reaction can lead to the following set of symptoms, some or all of which can be experienced during a panic attack:
Even though panic attacks are harmless, with this list of physical symptoms it is not difficult to understand why someone suffering from one may believe that something physically dangerous is happening.
The increased fear or anxiety when facing such an occasion often automatically leads to acceleration of breathing. To put it simply: the body prepares for the risk by channeling more oxygen to the muscles so that they are ready for action. However, since you are not really fleeing, but you usually remain stranded by fear, the muscles are not working. All this leads to a reduction of carbon dioxide and thus a reduction in blood calcium. Calcium, however, is what makes the muscles work continuously and gently, while reducing it causes muscle contractions. This is felt as numbness or tingling of the mouth, face, hands and feet, and tightness in the throat and chest. At the same time, the change in the carbon dioxide content leads to reduced blood supply to the brain, which is felt as dizziness or light-headedness. As expected, these symptoms increase fear and lead to even more rapid breathing, and then finally to the panic attack.
What causes panic attacks?
Speaking of panic attacks and other anxiety disorders such as phobias, it is better to talk about the situations that cause them. Scientists do not really know why some develop anxiety disorders and others do not. Factors contributing to the development of such disorders can be:
● Significant events (mostly unpleasant, but also pleasant in some rare occasions) requiring changes in lifestyle, habits, or the way we see ourselves.
● Chronic situations of tension and stress, such as chronic health problems, a marriage that is not going well, resentment or tension in the professional sector, unemployment, financial problems and more commonly a combination of such situations.
● Some substances or medicines, eg amphetamines, cocaine, or some sleeping pills. Usually panic attacks stop when one stops taking these substances.
● Depression: People who suffer from depression often exhibit an anxiety disorder. Most of the times it is not easy to say whether the depression pre-existed or if it occurred as a result of panic attacks or phobias.
How to stop panic attacks
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that has proven to be very effective for the treatment of panic attacks and anxiety disorders in general. Unlike some other types of psychotherapy, the CBT involves learning specific techniques. In collaboration with a cognitive-behavioral therapist, therapy may provide better or faster results, especially for people with more severe anxiety disorders.
So if you suffer from panic attacks you should take the following measures before the next crisis:
• Seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
• Learn to experience physical reactions of panic as manageable and non-threatening and not as devastating.
• Learn breathing and relaxation exercises.
A simple solution
A very simple and effective way to avoid the unpleasant symptoms of hyperventilation is to put a small plastic or paper bag (you can have a spare one in your bag "just in case") in front of the mouth and nose and breathe slowly from it for some time in order to inhale enough carbon dioxide and return our breathing to its normal rhythm.
"When I realized that no panic attack can harm me, the countdown started. When it was present, instead of thinking how scared I am and what may happen to me, I said to myself that it would pass, sometimes crying it out loud. This thought had tremendous power and I realized that with that kind of ally I can win all the battles against my panic attacks and to decide by myself what to do with my life. The truth is that through this experience a different self came out (which was previously ignored), a stronger and more mature self. " L.G.
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