If you've ever been so scared that you've feared for your life, you'll know what panic feels like. You'll have an overwhelming sense of dread, your heart will be thumping and you'll find it hard to catch your breath.
In some cases, this intense feeling and the associated symptoms can occur for seemingly no reason. When this happens, it is usually called a panic attack. This rush of psychological and physical symptoms can understandably be a frightening experience. For those with a panic disorder however, it is a common occurrence.
On this page we will talk through panic attacks in more detail, including what causes them and panic attack treatment. We'll also discuss how hypnotherapy can help when dealing with anxiety and panic attacks.
On this page
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack happens when your body experiences a sudden onset of intense symptoms. These symptoms are both psychological and physiological in nature. Usually an attack will begin with a sudden feeling of intense fear or panic. This is then generally followed by physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, nausea and sweating.
Feeling like this is understandably overwhelming and those who experience it often over-breathe (hyperventilate). Over-breathing in this way can then lead to more unwanted symptoms, making matters worse.
A typical panic attack lasts between five and 10 minutes, but they can come in waves for up to two hours. They tend to end as quickly as they begin and, even though it may not feel like it, they aren't harmful.
When you first experience a panic attack, it can be easily confused with breathing problems or a heart attack. If you are worried, don't hesitate to see your doctor. They will be able to assess your symptoms and let you know if there is any underlying medical cause. If they diagnose it as a panic attack, they should be able to offer advice regarding treatment.
Symptoms of a panic attack
While the sensations felt will differ from person to person, common panic attack symptoms include:
- a thumping heart or palpitations
- feeling sick
- chest pain
- feeling short of breath
- a choking sensation
- feeling dizzy
- feeling detached from reality.
Alongside these symptoms are the psychological symptoms. These include intense anxiety, panic and a fear of dying.
The cause of a panic attack or panic disorder isn't fully understood. In some cases there may be a trigger. For example you may start to experience panic attacks during a time of high stress (i.e. after the death of a loved one or an accident). Links between panic attacks and phobias, depression and anxiety have also been noted.
Many experts agree that a combination of physical and psychological factors come into play. Genetics could also contribute as research shows it can run in families. Certain lifestyle choices can also put you more at risk of having panic attacks, for example if you abuse drugs and/or alcohol.
In some instances the cause is unknown and the panic attacks appear from nowhere. If this is the case for you, you may find hypnotherapy particularly useful. Hypnotherapy can help you uncover deep-seated concerns that may be subconsciously causing your panic attacks.
Panic disorder is normally diagnosed if you find yourself experiencing panic attacks on a regular basis (at least once a month). Experiencing one-off or occasional panic attacks is relatively common, it's estimated that one in 10 people have occasional panic attacks. Panic disorder however is more rare and is thought to only affect one in 50.
With panic disorder, there may have been an initial event that triggered the panic attacks, but the subsequent attacks may be unpredictable and random. Having panic disorder can make you anxious about having a panic attack, which unsurprisingly can make the situation worse.
Hypnotherapy can be a helpful tool when managing panic disorder. This is because hypnotherapy can teach you relaxation techniques you can practise on a daily basis. By relieving your general anxiety, this in turn can help reduce the number of attacks.
Anxiety and panic attacks
Anxiety can be described as a feeling of unease or worry. All of us experience this from time to time, but for some it becomes common and problematic. If you feel anxious more than others, you could be suffering from clinical anxiety.
There are many conditions that can cause anxiety, including:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) - This is a condition where sufferers feel anxious about a wide range of situations.
- Phobias - Being irrationally afraid of an object, animal, place or situation is known as having a phobia.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - This condition is usually triggered by a traumatic event and sees sufferers experiencing physical and psychological symptoms.
If you suffer from anxiety, your risk of developing panic attacks is increased. This is because anxiety and panic attacks tend to go hand-in-hand. It may be that your anxiety is causing you to get overwhelmed and suffer panic attacks. Alternatively, it may also be that your panic attacks are causing you to become anxious about having future attacks.
When addressing your panic attacks, it is certainly worth dealing with anxiety issues too. Luckily, panic attack treatment and anxiety treatment is similar. Hypnotherapy can help here as it can be used to help both panic attacks and anxiety. Speak to your hypnotherapist and ask for advice in terms of dealing with anxiety as this could help your treatment.
Panic attack treatment
If you are experiencing panic attacks regularly it is worth visiting your doctor to discuss your treatment options. Like most mental health concerns, it is helpful to begin treatment as soon as possible to help you manage your symptoms before they impact too much on your daily life.
The overall aim of panic attack treatment is to reduce the number of attacks you have and ease the severity of your symptoms. The two most common treatments are psychological therapies and medication. The type of treatment you receive will depend on your individual case and the severity of your symptoms. For example, in some cases medication is not necessary.
Psychological intervention may include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of therapy designed to help you change your behaviour. This is achieved by teaching you certain techniques. Medication usually involves antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs), which can help manage the physical symptoms.
For many people, hypnotherapy is an ideal therapy to use alongside these two treatment options.
Hypnotherapy for panic attacks
Hypnotherapy has proven effective when dealing with anxiety, fear and stress, and therefore lends itself well to the treatment of panic attacks. The premise behind this form of therapy is to help you cope with specific symptoms using the power of suggestion while helping you overcome limiting beliefs.
Hypnotherapists may differ in their approach, but the following is an example of what might happen in a typical session:
Your hypnotherapist will begin by helping you to relax deeply; this will get you in the right state to receive hypnosis. They may then ask you to focus on the physical sensations you feel during a panic attack. Then, the hypnotherapist might offer calming phrases such as "You are in control of this attack" or suggest ways of coping, like "Slowing your breathing will help you feel calm". These are called suggestions.
The idea is that when you next feel a panic attack coming on, these subconscious suggestions will come into your conscious mind to help you cope. Hypnotherapy can also teach you valuable relaxation techniques which you can use to reduce your overall anxiety and lower your risk of having an attack.
Alongside this treatment, hypnotherapy can also be used to overcome negative thinking and boost self-esteem. Having low self-esteem and thinking negatively may well be contributing to your panic attacks, so addressing these behaviours can really help.
Most hypnotherapists will also teach their clients self-hypnosis techniques so they can continue their treatment at home.
Self-hypnosis for panic attacks
A common self-hypnosis technique used in panic attack treatment is to create a calm 'trigger' for times when you feel anxious. This typically involves you carrying out the relaxation techniques you learnt during your sessions and picturing yourself somewhere calm and safe. At this point, you can make a physical action (such as pinching a point on your hand).
The thinking here is that this creates a 'trigger', so next time you feel anxious or overwhelmed, you can make this physical action and trigger a sensation of calm. Self-hypnosis techniques will differ depending on your situation, so it is certainly worth asking about the different types during your hypnotherapy sessions.
While hypnosis may not be suitable for everyone, it is natural and risk-free. Some people find it's all they need to overcome their panic disorder, while others find it works best in conjunction with their other treatments. You are advised to speak to your doctor about including hypnotherapy to your treatment plan to discuss your suitability.
How to avoid a panic attack
As well as seeking help and receiving the appropriate treatment, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to help avoid a panic attack.
Scheduling time to relax is key as this helps to reduce stress and anxiety. Try to factor in some relaxation every day - use a technique you learnt in hypnotherapy or take up meditation. Even if you just take half an hour to relax in a warm bath, anything that helps you unwind is great.
Try to eat regular meals. This will keep your blood sugar levels stable, which can regulate mood. If you have too much sugar, or go too long without a meal, these levels can fluctuate and may trigger anxiety.
Avoid triggering substances. Alcohol, drugs and even caffeine can increase your anxiety levels and lead to a panic attack. Start noting down when you get panic attacks and think about what you've done and what you've eaten/drunk that day. You may be surprised to see a pattern emerging.
When you are having a panic attack, the best thing to do is focus on your breathing. Concentrate on breathing deeply and slowly. Think about taking the breath in to your belly, rather than your chest. This will get the diaphragm working properly which should stop you from over-breathing.
Remember your relaxation techniques and remember it isn't real. While it may feel like you are going to have a heart attack/pass out, the truth is you aren't in any physical danger. Remember that it will pass and that you can (and will) get through it.
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