24/04/2024 by Therapy For You

From fear to freedom: Your guide to understanding and overcoming panic attacks

From fear to freedom: Your guide to understanding and overcoming panic attacks

Sometimes life can get hectic and give rise to unexpected moments of panic. 


Whether you’re dealing with the pressures of school, the responsibilities of work, or simply trying to keep on top of life, panic attacks can happen at any time, leaving you feeling anxious, stressed and overwhelmed.


If panic is a regular occurrence in your life, or you’re someone who experiences attacks frequently for no particular reason, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone.

To help you better overcome these sudden bouts of anxiety, this blog explores panic attacks, what they are, and the exercises you can try to regain control.


What is a panic attack?


A panic attack (or an anxiety attack) is a sudden feeling of fear that washes over your mind and body. 


It’s caused when your mind jumps to the worst-case scenario, and mistakenly perceives the stressful situation you’re in as dangerous. This causes your ‘fight or flight’ response to trigger, flooding your body with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.


Much like other types of mental health problems, panic attacks affect everyone differently. They can emerge gradually or suddenly, last between 5 and 20 minutes, and have numerous symptoms.


What does a panic attack feel like?


When you’re experiencing a panic attack, practically any area of the body can be affected. Although it can vary from person to person, some of the most common physical symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling and shaking
  • A faster or irregular heartbeat
  • A churning stomach and a feeling of sickness
  • Dizziness, light-headedness and a loss of balance

Anxiety attacks influence more than just the physical sensations of your body. If you’re someone who suffers from this condition, you might also notice it can make you feel:

  • Teary, emotional, or as though you can’t stop crying
  • As if you are on the verge of catastrophe
  • Helpless and out of control
  • As though you aren’t connected to your body or surroundings
  • Like you’re going to die

Whatever happens to you during a panic attack, it’s really important to know that you’re not in any danger, no matter what your mind or body tells you.


What can trigger a panic attack?


Although panic attacks affect millions of people around the world, it isn’t well understood exactly why certain people react so strongly to situations that aren’t dangerous. 


Some research suggests that these kinds of mental health problems are linked to genetics. Other evidence indicates that, because anxiety and panic attacks are closely linked, they can occur as a response to stressful events or thoughts.


What we do know is that anxiety attacks can be brought on by physical symptoms, creating a vicious feedback loop that can feel inescapable when you’re caught in the middle…

  • You have an anxious thought
  • Your heart begins to race
  • You worry that you’re having a heart attack
  • Your heart rate elevates further
  • The cycle continues…

If you’re someone who experiences unexpected panic attacks at night, one after another, or regularly throughout your life, and there’s no specific pattern or cause, this could be a sign that you have a panic disorder – a condition that causes you to become overwhelmed by anxiety frequently, for no apparent reason.


4 techniques for dealing with panic attacks or panic disorders


When panic attacks dominate your life, you might find it harder to work, maintain relationships or look after your emotional wellbeing.


Although breaking free from this cycle may seem unthinkable now, these 4 simple techniques can make a real difference to the frequency and strength of your attacks.


1. Reassure yourself during a panic attack


When your head starts to spin, and you feel yourself losing grip on your mind and body, it’s first important to understand that you’re having an anxiety attack.  

While this realisation won’t immediately stop those unpleasant feelings or sensations, it can allow your mind to understand what’s happening, and remind you that this will pass.


It can also be a good way of knowing when to use relaxation techniques, like mindful breathing exercises, to cope with these overwhelming feelings of panic. 


2. Identify your triggers with a Panic Diary


Another effective way to manage panic attacks is to understand what triggers your attacks, which can be achieved by creating a Panic Diary. 


First, take a piece of paper, turn it landscape, and split the page into six columns:

  1. The first will be titled ‘Date and Situation’, and will be the space to record where, when and with whom your anxiety attack took place
  2. The next is called ‘Intensity of Panic’, where you’ll assess how strongly you felt panic in a certain situation, and rate it between 1% and 100%
  3. Title the third column ‘Physical Symptoms’, and use it to note down the individual symptoms you experienced during an anxiety attack
  4. The fourth is titled ‘Feared Consequences’, where you will write down what you thought the symptoms meant, and how much you believe that assumption
  5. The next column is ‘Behaviour’, where you will note what you did when you recognised the onset of an anxiety attack
  6. Finally, title the sixth column ‘Alternative Explanation’

With your Panic Diary created, fill out your sheet as soon as you can after experiencing a panic attack, leaving the sixth column blank for now.


As you build this up, you will better understand your triggers, and the actions that cause your mind and body to react positively and negatively. 


Once you have a clearer picture of what panic disorder looks like for you, come back and fill out the final column ‘Alternative Explanation’. Here, you will write a new explanation for your symptoms, based on your newfound understanding.


For example, you might have initially thought you were having a heart attack because your chest began to thump. But with everything you now know about panic attacks and their effect on you, you might reflect on this experience and note it was simply an anxiety attack.


3. Overcome your anxiety with Graded Exposure


Once you understand what causes your symptoms of panic to flare up, Graded Exposure can help you overcome these issues.


To start, create a hierarchy for your feared situations on a piece of paper. Think of this like a ladder – the most anxiety-inducing situation goes at the top, and the less intense steps to get there go below.


For example, you might place ‘Shopping at a busy supermarket’ at the top of your ladder, while the rung below might involve ‘Going to my local corner shop’ as a graded step towards it.


Starting at the bottom, complete each task, climbing up the ladder, taking as many steps as you need to overcome the dominating fear at the top. 


In each exposure session, it’s important to face your stressors without avoiding or escaping them. Ideally, you should stay in the situation for as long as it takes for your symptoms of anxiety to reduce by 50%.


As you complete exposure tasks, you will gradually learn that your fearful situations aren’t the source of your anxiety attacks – but how you perceive and react to them.


With this in mind, it’s time to schedule and record your exposure tasks. Get another piece of paper, turn it landscape, and create six columns:

  1. Title the first ‘Date and Time’, and note when you plan to complete your task
  2. Title the second ‘Duration’ – after finishing your task, note how long it took you to complete
  3. Title the third ‘Exercise’, writing what exactly your task involves
  4. Head the fourth ‘Before Exercise’, and note the anxiety you felt before doing the task on a scale of 1% to 100%
  5. Head the fifth ‘Start of Exercise’ and record how anxious you felt just as you started your task
  6. Finally, title the sixth ‘End of Exercise’, putting your final anxiety rating and any observations you made along the way

As you schedule exposure sessions and record how you feel, it’s important to:

  • Face your fears gradually – that means coming up with as many steps as you like, and completing them in their entirety
  • Set aside the time you need to habituate and reduce your anxiety by 50%, whether that takes 15 minutes or an hour
  • Complete each step multiple times – repeated exposure is the key to improvement, so aim to complete exposure sessions four or five times a week 
  • Avoid distraction during exposure; listening to music, scrolling your phone or bringing a friend can make it harder for these sessions to work

Remember, Graded Exposure is a gradual process. It allows you to make small, positive steps to overcome the situations that trigger your anxiety attacks, so you can feel better in the future.


4. Talk to a mental health professional


Even with these tips, escaping the shadow panic attacks cast over your life can be hard. 


If you think you’d benefit from more structured support, our team of mental health professionals at Therapy For You – your local NHS provider of talking therapies in North East and South East Essex – can get you on the path to feeling better.


While we may not be able to remove your panic attacks for good, our first-of-its-kind online panic attack course can help you take the first step in your treatment plan, providing you with practical techniques to better manage the onset of panic.


If online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) isn’t the right fit for you, our mental health service also offers numerous other pathways to therapy to suit your exact preferences:

For more about Therapy For You and the treatment options we can provide, get in touch with one of our qualified therapists today.

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