If you have ever had a panic attack, you know how scary they
can be. When you are in the middle of one, you can think you are having a heart
attack, stroke or other life-threatening crisis.
Panic attacks are surprisingly common. Up to 40 per cent of
us will experience one at some point in our lives, says Beyond Blue. The
anxiety related to the pandemic and its impacts may result in many people
experiencing panic attacks for the first time.
Despite how terrifying they can be, panic attacks are not
inherently dangerous, although the fear of having another can limit your daily
“At its core, a panic attack is an overreaction to the
body’s normal physiological response to the perception of danger,” says Dr Cindy
Aaronson, clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York.
What triggers a panic attack?
A panic attack typically happens when you are under physical
or emotional stress. The effects of stress can accumulate so slowly that you
may be unaware of the extent of your stress until a panic attack happens.
A panic attack starts with the amygdala, the brain region
involved in processing fear, explains Dr Aaronson. When the amygdala perceives
danger, it stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, she says, which triggers
the release of the hormone adrenaline.
Adrenaline prompts an increase in the heart and breathing
rate to get blood and oxygen to the muscles of the arms and legs. But during a
panic attack, this response is exaggerated beyond what would be useful in a
The intense rush of fear or anxiety you feel during a panic
attack is usually accompanied by at least four of the following symptoms, says
- racing heart or palpitations
- shortness of breath or feelings
- dizziness, trembling or shaking
- numbness or a tingling sensation
- hot and cold flashes
- fear of dying or of losing
- queasy stomach or nausea
- feeling detached from yourself
and your surroundings.
How to react to a panic attack
Panic attacks come on rapidly, but usually subside within 10
to 15 minutes. Dr Aaronson believes the most important technique to help you
ride them out is recognising that you’re having a panic attack and not a more
serious medical crisis.
“Just knowing what it is helps people,” she says. To be
sure, double check that you’re not experiencing any heart-attack specific
symptoms such as pressure in the chest or pain that builds or radiates into the
arms or jaw.
If you see someone having a panic attack (or are experiencing
one yourself), try not to ‘feed the fear’ by responding with anxiety or fear,
advises Justin Kenardy, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of
Queensland. He suggests the following:
- Calmly remind the person that
even though the experience is unpleasant, it’s not dangerous and will pass.
- Help to re-focus their mind away
from the thoughts that are causing stress.
- Help them to slow and pace their
breathing. For example, calmly ask them to breathe in for four seconds, hold
their breath for two seconds, and then breathe out slowly over six seconds.
Repeat for a minute or so, or as needed.