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panic attacks

panic attacks

panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear and anxiety that can cause significant physical and emotional distress

Panic attacks often come without warning and can be very upsetting. They happen when you feel a sudden surge of fear or worry that peaks within minutes. During a panic attack, you might feel your heart racing, sweat a lot, shake or have trouble breathing. You might also feel like something terrible is going to happen or that you are losing control.  

It’s important to understand panic attacks and how to manage them. Many people experience panic attacks and they can happen to anyone at any age. Experts say that more than third of us will experience a panic attack in our lifetime. Although they can be very scary, panic attacks can be treated and you can learn to manage them. Having access to mental health resources and support is important for those who have panic attacks. 

Common myths about panic attacks

panic attacks are just overreactions and can be controlled

Panic attacks are real and can be triggered by various factors like stress, genetics and underlying mental health conditions. They are not just overreactions and cannot be controlled by willpower alone.

panic attacks can cause permanent damage to the body

While panic attacks can be extremely distressing and physically exhausting, they do not cause permanent physical damage. However, frequent panic attacks can impact overall wellbeing and should be addressed with proper treatment. 

only weak or anxious people have panic attacks

Panic attacks can happen to anyone, regardless of their mental strength or personality. They can affect people of all backgrounds and are not a sign of personal weakness.

Causes of panic attacks

The causes of panic attacks can vary and often involve a mix of factors:

Biological factors

Genetics can play a role. If someone in your family has panic-related condition or other anxiety issues, you might be more likely to have them too. Brain chemistry imbalances can also contribute to panic attacks.

Psychological factors

People with a history of anxiety, depression or PTSD are more prone to panic attacks. High stress levels and major life changes can also trigger them.

Environmental factors

Certain triggers like crowded places, work stress or traumatic events such as grieving for a loved one can lead to panic attacks. In Scotland, changes in weather or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can also affect their frequency and intensity.

When do I know if I am having a panic attack?

Recognising the signs of a panic attack can help you manage and address the condition:

Physical symptoms: These can range from heart palpitations, sweating, shaking, trouble breathing, chest pain, nausea, dizziness chills or hot flashes.

Emotional symptoms: This includes an intense fear of losing control, fear of dying, feeling detached from reality or feeling detached from yourself.

Duration: Panic attacks usually peak within 10 minutes and rarely last longer than 30 minutes. However, the fear of having another attack can linger and increase anxiety.

If you often experience these symptoms, it’s important to seek help to manage and treat your panic attacks.

How to help yourself

If you are dealing with panic attacks, here are some ways to help manage your symptoms:

Seek professional help

A healthcare provider can offer treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which is effective for panic attacks. Medications might also be prescribed to help manage symptoms. You can read more about it on the NHS inform website.

Learn breathing techniques

Practising deep breathing exercises can help calm your body and reduce the severity of panic attacks. Try diaphragmatic breathing or the 4-7-8 breathing method. The breathing technique involves breathing in for 4 seconds, holding it for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8 seconds.

Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques like meditation or progressive muscle relaxation can help lower anxiety levels and reduce the chance of panic attacks.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Regular exercise, a balanced diet and enough sleep can all help improve your mental health and reduce the frequency of panic attacks.

How to help others

Supporting someone with panic attacks requires empathy, patience and understanding:

Stay calm: During a panic attack, stay calm and reassure the person that they are safe. Speak in a gentle, reassuring tone and avoid rushing them.

Offer support: Help them focus on their breathing by guiding them through slow, deep breaths. Encourage them to breathe in slowly through their nose and out through their mouth. You can also signpost them to other relevant support at the bottom of this page.

Be understanding: Avoid dismissing their feelings or telling them to “calm down.” Make sure to respect their boundaries. Recognise that their fear is real and that they need support, not judgement.

Encourage professional help: Suggest they seek professional treatment and offer to help them find resources or accompany them to appointments if they are comfortable with that.

support

Our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, where advisers can signpost you to local support that most fits your needs, including our Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.

Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at advice@changemh.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.

Other support

Breathing Space is a confidential helpline for people in Scotland feeling low, anxious, or depressed. Call 0800 83 85 87 or visit Breathing Space. 

Anxiety UK provides support and resources for people dealing with anxiety disorders, including panic attacks. Visit Anxiety UK for more information. 

No Panic is a charity providing support for those with panic attacks, phobias, OCD, and other related anxiety disorders. They offer helplines, support groups, and recovery programs. Visit No Panic for more details.

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