Given the high demands of life in our fast moving society, we are all vulnerable to experiencing feelings of both stress and anxiety. Feelings of nervousness, worry and fear are therefore common symptoms, which are normal emotions to feel from time to time. Panic attacks, however, are more than just feelings of stress and anxiety.

A panic attack is a rush of intense psychological and physical symptoms, that onset suddenly and are extremely intense. Panic attacks impact upon thoughts, perceptions and emotions, and are experienced through many unpleasant physical sensations. These symptoms can occur either unexpectedly or can be triggered by fears, phobias or trauma. Panic attacks generally peak at around 10 minutes before symptoms reduce but they generally last between 5 and 20 minutes.

Panic attacks are not recognised as a mental health condition on their own. According to the DSM – IV – TR a panic attack is characterised by four or more of the following symptoms:

  1. Palpitations, pounding heart or accelerated heart rate
  2. Sweating
  3. Trembling or shaking
  4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  5. Feeling of choking
  6. Chest pain or discomfort
  7. Nausea or abdominal distress
  8. Feeling dizzy, unsteady lightheaded or faint
  9. Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself
  10. Fear of losing control or going crazy
  11. Fear of dying
  12. Numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
  13. Chills or hot flushes

Physical symptoms of panic attacks are caused by the body going into “fight or flight” mode, in response to a perceived threat. Breathing quickens as the body tries to increase oxygen levels in the blood. Hormones, such as adrenaline, are also released causing the heart to beat faster and muscles to tense up.

When experiencing a panic attack, remaining calm and concentrating on breathing are important to help symptoms subside quickly. Breathing in deeply through your nose and slowly out of your mouth can help to reduce the symptoms of a panic attack. As levels of carbon dioxide in the blood return to normal, you will begin to start feeling better, although you may feel tired.

Although scary, generally panic attacks are not damaging to your health. However, if symptoms continue for more than 20 minutes, you still feel unwell after your breathing returns to normal, you still have a rapid or irregular heartbeat or chest pains after the panic attack has subsided or you have regular panic attacks you may need to seek medical advice.

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