What you need to know

Over the years I have been asked many questions about panic attacks, so I have decided to put up the most common concerns that people have, in the hope that it will help you to find some answers and understanding.

People associate me with my work on anxiety and panic.  I am not entirely sure how this happened, as I am trained and have worked in all mental health conditions.  That said, I have built a considerable amount expertise on this area over the years, both in a professional capacity and on a personal level, as I hold my hands up and am happy to admit, I had my share of panic attacks during one stage of my life!  More about that later.

To kick off, it is a good idea to find out first if you have an anxiety and feel free to go and take the test and come back to this page

Take anxiety test

You’re back? So you found out you have anxiety?  There are some things you need to know first about panic attacks.

If you have asthma, go and get it checked out again

If you have heart problems or thyroid problems go get that checked too.

As these conditions can give you the same symptoms as panic attacks.  If you have no medical problems that might account for what is happening to you, then the rest of the page is for you.

I am going to start with the typical questions I get asked and then go over some of the do’s and do not do’s, as well as looking at some of the myths and assumptions that might be holding you back.

Why do I get panic attacks?

Your brain is over reacting to normal day to day things.  This means that in everyday situations, you are getting a stress response.  It is the stress response that gives you the feelings and fear that you get in your body.  If you want to read more on this, go and read about your nervous system and come back to this page

In a nutshell, you are getting a reaction on a regular basis that is reserved to come out rarely (as it takes up so much energy)  The reaction you are getting each time you have a panic attack, is the reaction that is sparked off when your brain thinks that you are in serious danger.

How can I stop them?

You need to learn to calm down your system, and replace the stress response with a relaxation response.  It sounds very easy with that one sentence answer, but admittedly there is quite a lot more to it than that.

Why do I get them in __________ ?

I left that part of the question blank, as believe it or not, this one answer will apply to whatever scenario you have, such as

Why do I get panic attacks when driving, giving a presentation, shopping, sleeping etc.

If you have had panic attacks in these places before, it could well have been a one off incident.  Chances are though, you might have worried about it, or changed your behaviour, or avoided the presentation, driving, or shopping.  In doing so, your brain was denied the opportunity to learn to relax in these environments.

Say it was to do with driving and I told you, you had to give me a lift from Dublin this evening.  You might spend all day worrying about it.

Now because your thoughts are not neutral, you will probably start to feel something in your body.  Just the thought of driving can make you feel anxious.  You are in fact priming yourself to be anxious, when you come to collect me from work.

You are anxious before getting in the car, terrified while driving and hoping to God that you do not get a panic attack.

Consider this.  Your brain is always on.  It is always taking in new information and learning.  In this case, your brain is learning to be anxious around driving.

I’ve no reason to panic, I have a good life

Panic shows no prejudice.  It does not care if you have money to burn and live in the biggest house in Ireland and retired at age 35.  Given the right set of circumstances, panic will visit you.

I think it is a common assumption that people should be having a terrible life, with lots of worries, in order to get panic attacks.  It just doesn’t work that way.

If you drink enough coffee, I can almost guarantee you a panic attack.

Am I going crazy?

In a word, no.

I was tempted to leave the answer at that, but thought you might need a little more reassurance.  Your thoughts can reach some scary heights during high anxiety, but that is all they are; thoughts.  In fact, having the thought “am I going crazy” is a classic symptom of anxiety.

Can you fix them?

Yes.  It is not me that fixes them.  It is actually you.  It is you that does all the ‘unlearning’ and it is you that changes the way you think, feel and behave in order to induce a relaxation response.

I am ashamed to tell anyone

Don’t be.  Almost everyone will have at least one panic attack in their life.  I’m a psychologist and have had them.  If you had asked me about ten years ago, I would have felt the shame and stigma most people feel.  I had the same worries you might have now, especially if you are thinking about getting help.

I certainly thought some of these things, and I know many others have too.

  • Will it affect my career prospects?
  • Will it stop me from getting a job, or a certain type of training?

I would be lying to you if I said the stigma has gone.  I think it is still alive and well, but it is being broken down, and broken down fast.  The more people talk about it, the more normal it becomes.

But I’m not anxious

You will be, trust me on this one.  So many people say, I can’t be having panic attacks as I am not anxious.  You may not feel anxious, or you may be accustomed to feeling a certain way, but you cannot have a panic attack without there being a backdrop of anxiety.

I panic because of my work, my partner, my kids, my job, my _______ .

You panic because you are getting a stress response.  This one always sounds harsh when I say this, so can I remind you I have had panic attacks, so I include myself in this.

It is not your partners fault, or your kids, or your boss for that matter.  If I apply this to myself, it was not the fault of being overworked etc, that led me to panic.

The reason why I had panic attacks, and the reason you are having them now, is because of how your body and mind are reacting to day to day events.

This is not blame.  I am not blaming you (or me for that matter.)  It is actually a good thing.  If your panic was because of your boss or your kids, that takes away your control as we cannot change other people.

If you accept it is because of you, well you are the boss of you, and can change.

It’s just the way I am wired, I’ve always been anxious.

That can change too.  Recent research shows that we can teach an old dog new tricks.

The way you do things every day is because your brain has pathways, helping you to carry out tasks.  A well-trodden path so to speak.  If you have always been anxious, you will have a very well developed pathway in your brain to keep you anxious in all the situations where you feel panic.

You can change that.  Science shows us that you can develop new pathways, develop new learning, new ways of operating in your day to day life that does not include panic attacks.

Will they affect my health?

Over a prolonged period of time, any form of stress is not good and will more than likely take it’s toll on your body.  Panic attacks won’t kill you, but you really should think about doing something about them as they are hard on your body to say the least.  They also chip away at your confidence and start to affect most aspects of your life.

 

I remember reading Claire Weekes’ book when she said that even though I may be terrified at the moment when I lie down and hear my own heartbeat on the pillow, one day, you will accept it and turn over and go back to sleep.  I thought ‘you are kidding me’ or words to that affect that are not suitable for the internet!  But I get it now, there comes a time when acceptance creeps in, and then you are on your way to getting better.

Make no mistake, panic attacks are terrifying, to anyone.  I started this article, saying that I hold my hands up, I had them too.  If one more person where to ask me “so tell me Elaine, why have you invited them into your life?” I think I would be blogging from inside a prison cell!  I kind of get that too, although for those of you who know me, I won’t be balancing anyone’s chakra’s anytime soon!

 

Science is good!

but when we are at a low, we will try anything.

I am not sure why this is, and I have fallen prey to it as well.  I was quite ill in the 90′s, I had been given a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and I attended (for those of you old enough to remember) a certain Dr Carmody in Killaloe (and it would take another post for my thoughts on him alone).

I paid a fortune for someone in Dublin to give me a pan loaf to hold (with the wrapping still on) and raise my arm, to be told something about my immune system.

Whatever was on offer, I tried it, and spent every penny I had.  Why?  With hindsight, I was desperate.  If someone offered me a glimmer of hope, I took it and ran with it.

Admittedly chronic fatigue syndrome is a bit different from panic attacks, in that (well back in the 90′s) it was cloaked in uncertainty with very little research on what works and what doesn’t, and for a lot of professionals, it just didn’t exist.

The point I am trying to make in a rather long winded way is that when you are desperate, you will try anything.  This is why I now love science.  I always tell people, if something is working for you, keep doing it.  However, for those of us who haven’t found what works, science is our best, and safest shot.

So what works?

  • CBT
  • Mindfulness
  • Diet and Lifestyle changes
  • Relaxation
  • Understanding your brain

No one thing can help everyone 100% of the time.  That why I always recommend treatments that have empirical evidence.  Basically, things that have been shown to do what they say on the tin.  That is not to say other things won’t work for you, but if you want to get better, I would start with treatments that have the backing of science behind them.

If you want to come in and work with myself I will be happy to see you.  If you are sure you have panic attacks, a much more cost effective option is to do my program.  I have an online CBT course that covers everything I do, only much cheaper and you can do it at home, in your own time!

Read about my course

As a final point, Things to do and things to stop doing

The good.

  1. Meditate
  2. Keeping doing what you are doing
  3. Get a hobby or do something you love

The bad – things to stop

  1. Safety blankets – these include taking water with you, not going out alone, etc
  2. Caffeine
  3. Sugar
  4. Stop talking about it
  5. Stop feeling your pulse!

I might do a separate post on all of the above at some stage, so check back again if you are interested.

See also NHS