A panic attack happens when your body is responding to fear. In short, it is an exaggeration of your body’s natural response to excitement, stress or danger.
Panic attacks are very frightening, not only for those experiencing the attack but the people around them, too. While a typical panic attack will only last between five and 20 minutes, they can come in waves, for up to two hours. This moment can feel like a lifetime.
Panic attacks tend to end as quickly as they begin, but the thing to remember is that they are not harmful. It’s the body’s way of reacting to a situation, despite there being no physical threat.
What is a panic attack?
If you’ve ever been in a situation that causes you to fear for your life, you’ll know what panic feels like. You may have an overwhelming sense of dread, you’ll feel your heart thumping in your chest and you’ll find it hard to catch your breath.
For some people, this feeling and the associated symptoms can happen for no reason, in everyday life. With no physical threat, this rush of psychological and physical symptoms is called a panic attack. While there may be no sign of danger, the body reacts in order to survive. Some people may experience a panic attack suddenly or during a particularly stressful time in their life. Others, however, may have a panic disorder, in which panic attacks and intense anxiety are a common occurrence.
Most people will experience a relatively mild form of anxiety in their lives, usually when facing a particularly stressful situation, like an exam or in an interview. But for some people, anxiety is like a shadow that never leaves. Anxiety disorders can affect a person’s life, making it incredibly difficult to carry out everyday tasks, like going to work, or even leaving the house.
Anxiety is sparked by a fear of something that has happened, what we suspect will happen and what we fear will happen again. But, because it can affect all of us in some way, it can be difficult to recognise when it’s becoming a problem.
Anxiety will feel different for each individual and, depending on the symptoms you experience, you may be diagnosed with a more specific anxiety disorder, such as:
- generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
What does a panic attack feel like?
When a person has a panic attack, they will experience a sudden and intense feeling of fear. The sensations of a panic attack will vary and what one person experiences, may not be the same for someone else. However, there are common symptoms of panic attacks, including:
- a thumping heart or palpitations
- feeling sick
- sweating or hot flushes
- chest pain or tightness
- shortness of breath
- feeling dizzy
- feeling detached from reality
When a person first experiences a panic attack it can be easily confused with breathing problems or, in severe cases, a heart attack. Feeling this way is, understandably, very overwhelming. People experiencing it will often ‘over breathe’ or hyperventilate, in an attempt to calm down. Unfortunately, this can actually worsen the situation, leading to more side-effects.
Panic attacks typically last between five and 20 minutes, with symptoms being at their worst within 10 minutes. As panic attacks tend to come in waves, you may experience symptoms for up to two hours.
Know that there are ways to cope with and manage panic attacks. Focusing on slowing your breathing can help, and remind yourself that the feelings will pass. Of course, this can be easier said than done. If you’re worried, it can help to speak to a professional for support. Your doctor can assess your symptoms, helping you to understand possible causes and whether it is anxiety or panic disorder.
Causes of panic attacks
The exact causes of anxiety and panic attacks are unknown, though there are a number of environmental and psychological factors involved. According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists, there are four factors that may cause anxiety problems; genetics, life experience, circumstance and substance abuse.
There are suggestions that some of us are simply born more anxious than our peers. While there is limited research on this, connections have been found between parents with mental health conditions and their children.
If we’ve experienced a traumatic event or accident in the past, or even if our current lives are particularly stressful (for example, pregnancy, moving house, divorce and unemployment) our mental health can be compromised.
Sometimes, the cause of anxiety is obvious and when the problem goes away, so do your symptoms. But sometimes, there are things we face which threaten our lives that trigger anxiety. When this kind of anxiety lasts for a long time, it may be post-traumatic stress disorder.
Panic attack treatment
If you’re experiencing panic attacks regularly, or your anxiety is affecting your daily life and overall well-being, consider speaking to your doctor. With mental health, it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. It can be very isolating when it feels like nobody else understands how you feel, but you’re not alone.
Typically, panic attack treatment aims to ease the impact the anxiety and attacks are having on your life, and teach you ways to cope whenever you feel an attack may be triggered. Psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are common treatment options and, in some cases, medication is prescribed. Hypnotherapy is another treatment option you may want to consider.
The type of treatment you receive will depend on your personal situation and the severity of your symptoms. You will never be forced into a treatment you aren’t comfortable with.
Hypnotherapy can help by increasing your self-awareness and letting you get in touch with these feelings. Once a person gets past their defence mechanisms it's easier to regress to the point at which the anxiety started or to simply understand what it is that triggers the stress.
Hypnotherapy for panic attacks
Hypnotherapy for anxiety can help rebuild self-belief and boost confidence, as well as helping to reduce feelings of fear and worry. It can help you learn and build on your ability to access a calmer state of mind, which is needed to help cope with the overwhelming emotions you’re feeling.
Hypnosis for panic attacks is similar to hypnotherapy for anxiety. It aims to access your subconscious and use the power of suggestion to promote positive change. The suggestions used by the hypnotherapist will be tailored to your individual situation; what is causing your panic attacks and why, and working to change the way your body responds to triggers.
Suggestions may include:
- ‘You are in control of this, nothing is going to hurt you’
- ‘Slow your breathing, it will help you feel calm’
- ‘You can get through this, just breathe’
The idea of these suggestions is that when you next feel a panic attack coming on, your subconscious will return to these statements to help you cope.
Hypnotherapy for panic attacks can help you regain a sense of control and normality in your life. It can help you understand what may have caused your anxiety, help you recognise signs of the onset of an attack and provide you with tools to manage and overcome the feelings.
Relaxation is also a key part of hypnotherapy. Panic attacks can often cause, or worsen feelings of anxiety, as you fear the next attack, not knowing when it will happen. Hypnotherapy for anxiety can teach you valuable relaxation techniques, to help reduce your overall stress and worry - lowering your risk of another attack.
Self-hypnosis for anxiety
During your hypnotherapy sessions, you may be given self-hypnosis techniques to practise at home between sessions and to use after your sessions have ended. The idea behind this is to help you if you feel anxious outside of sessions. You will be able to return to these techniques to help you cope and work through the anxious moments.
A common self-hypnosis technique used in panic attack treatment is to create a ‘calm trigger’ for times when you feel anxious. This will typically involve you actioning the relaxation techniques you learnt during hypnotherapy sessions, and picturing yourself in a calm, safe place.
Once you have thought of a safe environment, you can make a physical action, such as pinching a point on your hand or thumb. The idea behind this is that it creates a routine and encourages a calming reaction; when you’re feeling anxious, fearful or worried, you make the physical action and trigger a sensation of calm.
When I get anxious now, I often go back in my memory to the beautiful garden and the cathedral room. It makes me feel relaxed at times when I am nervous.
- Read Tina’s story.
How to prevent panic attacks
Identifying any stressors that could be making your condition worse is a useful exercise. Of course, there are some situations that are out of our control. But, what’s the one thing that’s always in our control? The way we react to them. Learning how to manage stress can go a long way in helping you manage panic attacks. Here are some other suggestions to prevent panic attacks:
Breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation
When we’re stressed, our bodies go into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This causes us to breathe a lot shallower than we normally do. Breathing shallower can cause physical symptoms, like chest pain and dizziness. These symptoms can be enough to cause us to panic, and for some leads to a full-blown panic attack.
The 7/11 breathing technique can be helpful. Simply breathe in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11. When you're in fight or flight mode your body naturally breathes in for longer than it breathes out to build up oxygen to prime your muscles for running. By breathing out for longer than you breathe in your brain receives the message that you don't need extra oxygen so the danger must be over.
When we exercise, our bodies produce endorphins (‘happy’ hormones) and this helps to lower stress. If you’re not used to exercising, just starting out with regular walks can help. Being in nature can distract you and encourage relaxation too.
Avoiding excess sugar, caffeine and alcohol
Certain foods and drinks can exacerbate physical anxiety symptoms - these include too much sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Try to reduce your caffeine intake and try herbal teas instead. Snack on nuts and fruit instead of biscuits and avoid overindulging with alcohol.
Talking it out
When we keep things to ourselves and bottle worries up, they often end up manifesting as stress and anxiety. Talking to people about how you feel can make a big difference. If you don’t want to talk to your family or friends, you could consider talking to a professional or joining a support group (either in person or online).
What to do when you have a panic attack
When you’re in the midst of a panic attack, we know how hard it can be to think of anything in particular, but try your best to remember the following points:
- What you’re feeling is very unpleasant, but it is not harmful.
- You have been through this before and you survived. These feelings will pass.
- Focus on your breathing. Breathe in slowly, deeply and gently through your nose and out slowly, deeply and gently through your mouth. Imagine your body relaxing with every out-breath.
- Try to visualise a calm scene (hypnotherapy can help you develop this skill).
- Don’t fight it. Often trying to not have a panic attack makes things worse. Instead, try to ride the wave and know it’ll be over soon.