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• Symptoms of a panic attack include extreme anxiety and physical sensations of fear, such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, trembling and muscle tension.
• Triggers for panic attacks can include over breathing, long periods of stress, activities that lead to intense physical reactions (for example exercise, excessive coffee drinking) and physical changes occurring after illness or a sudden change of environment.
• Panic attacks can be treated with a range of therapies including medications, psychotherapy and stress management and relaxation techniques.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a brief episode of intense anxiety, which causes the physical sensations of fear. These can include a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling and muscle tension. Panic attacks occur frequently and unexpectedly and are often not related to any external threat. A panic attack can last from a few minutes to half an hour. However, the physical and emotional effects of the attack may last for a few hours.
Panic attacks are common. Up to 35% of the population experience a panic attack at some time in their lives. A panic attack can also be called an anxiety attack.
Without treatment, frequent and prolonged panic attacks can be severely disabling. The person may choose to avoid a wide range of situations (such as leaving their home or being alone) for fear of experiencing an attack.
Suggestions on how to cope with a panic attack include:
• Avoid ‘self-talk’ that focuses your attention on your symptoms – don’t tell yourself ‘Stop panicking!’ or ‘Relax!’
• Remind yourself that the symptoms of a panic attack are uncomfortable, but not life threatening. Reassure yourself that you’ve felt these feelings before and nothing bad happened to you.
• Focus your attention on something outside your own body and symptoms. For example, distract yourself by counting backwards in threes from 100, recall the words from a favourite song or concentrate on the sights and sounds around you.
• Fleeing from the situation will only reinforce the perception that your panic attacks are unbearable. If you sit and allow the symptoms to pass, you gain confidence in your ability to cope.