Your heart starts pumping rapidly, you find it hard to catch your breath, and you feel an intense sense of fear. Dizziness, feeling sick, chest pains, hot flushes, sweating, and fear of losing control or dying are other symptoms.
The onset of these psychological and physical symptoms is called a panic attack. Whilst there may be no real danger around, your body is responding to ensure your survival, triggering a rush of adrenaline which causes various changes throughout the body.
This surge of bodily and emotional changes make panic attacks feel extraordinarily frightening and overwhelming, especially when you are experiencing them for the first time.
Why do we get panic attacks?
Some people experience panic attacks during a particularly stressful time in their life.
Others, however, may have a panic disorder, in which anxiety and panic attacks are part of the symptoms.
Often a panic attack will come out of nowhere - there are no obvious triggers.
About 35-50% of adults will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime, and less than 10% will have panic attacks that are frequent enough to meet the criteria for a panic disorder.
What to do during a panic attack
Panic attacks typically last between five and 20 minutes, but you may experience symptoms for up to two hours as panic attacks tend to come in waves.
For people experiencing attacks for the first time, a temptation is to over breathe or hyperventilate in the attempt to calm down. Unfortunately this often makes symptoms worse.
Understanding that you will get through this is key to calming down your mind and reducing your anxiety.
Different things work for different people but here are some of the techniques I have seen work well for clients I work with.
At the first feelings of onset, find a place to sit down, even if this is on the pavement or a floor of a building. If you feel dizzy, this is particularly important to avoid you falling and hurting yourself.
Distract yourself. If you are with someone, explain what is happening and ask them to chat to you about something completely different to reduce the intensity of your focus on your physical symptoms. If you are on your own, try listening to music or ringing a friend for a chat.
Slow your breathing by doing breathing exercises like rectangular breathing. Sometimes this is easier said than done, though, as feelings of breathlessness can make it hard to slow your breathing.
Accept that it is happening. This will take practice, but sometimes you may be in an environment where you can’t go outside or be with a friend. Accept you will be ok and can ride out the wave of symptoms. Imagine you're in the sea and riding with the waves, rather than against them.
Remind yourself that the panic attack won’t kill you. They are not dangerous, it is just your normal survival response, in simple terms a misplaced surge of adrenaline.
Know your triggers by recording each time what was happening around the time of having the attack. Was there change in your life, had you slept badly, were you drinking too much alcohol or caffeine that day, suffering from social anxiety, on medication?
Hypnotherapy for panic attacks
Hypnotherapy can help you reduce your worries and anxiety, and rebuild your confidence and self-esteem that you can get through panic attacks.
Most importantly it helps you to regain a sense of control and normality in your life.
The talking therapy part of hypnotherapy helps you find solutions for how to manage your anxiety better and to change the ways your body responds to triggers. The hypnosis part of hypnotherapy aims to access your subconscious and use language suggestions to promote positive change.
Language suggestions which can help you with panic attacks include statements such as:
I can get through this, I can breathe
Nothing is going to harm me, I am in control
The idea behind this is that your subconscious can return to these statements when it needs to to help you cope.
Please talk to a GP or a therapist if you want support with panic attacks. Panic attacks may lead to agoraphobia - an avoidance of situations or places where escape may be difficult or embarrassing, such as crowded places, walking, driving etc. It’s important to get help if you are starting to avoid going out or avoiding particular situations.