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What Happens When… You Have A Panic Attack?

2 MIN READ • 3rd September 2019

Anxiety attacks are frightening, especially if you’ve never had one before. We asked Dr Donna Grant, consultant psychiatrist ( what happens when one plays out…

Feel the fear

“There is a build-up of physical symptoms such as palpitations, sweating and nausea,” says Donna. “These can be frightening, and can make you feel like you’re having a heart attack. It builds into a crescendo of fear, which then leads to the sense of ‘fear the fear’. Panic attacks usually last from 5-20 minutes, but can last up to one hour. The symptoms will not result in physical harm, even though it might feel like that.”

Panic stations ready?

“Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at times, however, panic is an overwhelming feeling of anxiety,” says Donna. “It can be unpredictable and it doesn’t always come on for a particular reason. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, an impending divorce, or a job loss can trigger an attack, but specific situations, such as being in crowded places, can also cause one to occur.”

Recovery time

“If you suffer from panic attacks then try to learn to control breathing and take deeper breaths than normal,” says Donna. “Positive coping statements when you’re feeling anxious, such as ‘my anxiety and panic will pass naturally given time,’ can help to challenge unhelpful thoughts. While professional treatment can make the biggest difference, things like exercising regularly and getting enough sleep help to reduce the likelihood of these attacks. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) works by focusing on the behaviours and thinking patterns, allowing you to look at your triggers and fears more realistically. Medication can be used alongside therapy.”

Fight or flight

“Fear is the emotion that triggers the chain of events in a panic attack,” says Donna. “The hormone adrenaline is behind the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response and activates the sympathetic nervous system. It’s then released into the blood stream, putting the body into high alert. It causes an increased heart rate, fast and shallow breathing to allow more oxygen to be taken in, a spike in blood-sugar levels and a sharpening of the senses. This all happens in an instance.”

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