Anxiety can quickly destabilise someone who might otherwise function very well in everyday life. Panic comes on suddenly with some or all of the following symptoms:
A rapid heartbeat; sickness, shaking, sweating, a sense of not being able to breathe properly, gagging or choking sensations, feeling faint, fingers and toes tingling, a buzzing noise in your ears, a churning in your stomach and maybe something else you have experienced. These physical signs of panic can last up to about 20 minutes on average and can be so distressing to an individual that they think something serious is happening to their body – some even fear that they might collapse and die from a heart attack since their heart seems to be beating either loudly or in a chaotic pattern. Although panic can be very frightening, these symptoms are not generally considered dangerous and if you are able to find a way to calm down, you may quickly feel better.
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It is likely that something has triggered this reaction which is like a switch being tuned in your body to initiate what is called “fight or flight.” In the face of fear, our body gets ready to escape potential danger with this very natural response of “fight or flight.” For example, if you came across a dangerous situation such as a wild animal or an aggressive person, your body would respond by triggering the “fight or flight” response in which hormones like adrenaline and cortisol would be released, so causing your heart to beat more quickly and generally provide the body with a boost of physical energy to flee the danger. The “fight or flight” response was proposed by an American physiologist, Walter Cannon, in the 1920s to describe a sequence of internal bodily reactions that seemed to occur to heighten physical mobility in the face of fear and threat.
Panic can be brought on by real or imagined events so perhaps you have experienced a panic feeling during the night as a result of a dream or when imaging something that might happen. After the loss of a close friend or family member, a person’s sensitivity towards similar situations threatening their own mortality, can be common, often causing catastrophic thinking in response to minor events. For example, if you have experienced a family member dying of cancer, this can increase your awareness and fear of lumps in your own body or other potential signs of illness.
An expert in the field of panic, Paul Salkovskis, professor of clinical psychology at Bath University, confirms that episodes of panic do pass and although the symptoms are frightening, there is generally no need for concern. He suggests facing the fearful situation so that you can challenge the intense anxiety you are feeling and allow yourself to realise all is ok once the symptoms pass.”
Trying to remain calm is important as well as focusing on your breathing since we generally stop breathing deeply in panic mode. It may help to sit down in a comfortable chair and to try the following breathing exercise, to help your body relax:
Close your eyes and place your hands on your tummy. Follow the movement of your tummy as you breathe in and out and do this for long enough to know which way your tummy moves when you breathe in and which way when you breathe out. With the next 3 breaths, say the following words as you breathe out:
Its ok……2. I’m ok……3. Relax and breathe
Then continue this pattern trying to slow down the words as you say them and in a while you may notice that your breathing is becoming a little slower. Keep going until you feel better and then gently open your eyes and think about what you need, perhaps to comfort you after this frightening experience. You may like to rest in bed for a while or to relax on a sofa with a blanket and a warm drink. Make sure to take time to look after yourself well for the rest of the day.
If this exercise was useful and helped you to calm down, then maybe you could write it down as a reminder of what to do if you experience another attack of panic or intense anxiety. Don’t forget to say “well done to yourself” for making it through a fearful experience.
You may find other useful information on the NHS website https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/coping-with-panic-attacks/ especially advice on what to do if your signs of panic do not abate after about 20 minutes of trying a breathing exercise.
If you find that you are having panic attacks or feeling very anxious on a regular basis, maybe weekly or even daily or more, then it is likely that you are experiencing a high level of anxiety. Seeing an anxiety counsellor or therapist in Hove can help you to understand possible sources of your anxiety and can offer you a few skills to help challenge patterns of thinking, feeling or behaving that have become problematic. The following forms of therapy may be especially useful:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, CBT: focuses on thoughts and behaviours primarily, supporting a person in managing unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour that might feed or even strengthen panic and anxiety. The anxiety counsellor will generally provide you with some exercises to follow at home in-between CBT sessions. CBT was first introduced by a psychiatrist called Dr Aaron Beck in the 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania where he was studying the thought patterns of patients who were extremely anxious and depressed.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, DBT: is a talking therapy like CBT with particular attention to emotional balance. This treatment was pioneered by Marsha Linehan, an American psychologist, initially to help people with borderline personality disorder. DBT involves a number of practical skills that can be learnt within an anxiety therapy context and which can be used to manage panic and intense anxiety.
Finally, it is worth considering your general well-being since your mental, physical and emotional health can affect your ability to manage panic and overcome possible reasons for your intense anxiety. You may like to reflect upon the following aspects of your well-being:
Physical activity: moving around more can help to decrease levels of anxiety as well as offering a useful level of distraction, so make sure you include walks and other exercise in your daily life.
Nutrition: make sure to eat a nutrient dense diet every day since what we eat can significantly affect our mood. Limit your intake of sugary foods inbetween meals as these can induce low mood as well as food cravings. Eat breakfast everyday which fires up metabolism as well as promoting a feeling of well-being.
Sleep and rest: take time to rest during the day if your sleep is broken at night or if you are tired.
Alcohol: avoid mood altering substances like alcohol which can seriously affect your mindset as well as your health.
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