What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a name given to what happens when your body mistakenly experiences the physical and mental sensations that occur when you are in immediate danger. 

How do I know if I am having a panic attack or an immediate health condition?

As the physical symptoms of panic attacks are so extreme, you might fear that you are having a heart attack or dying. Part of the diagnostic process for panic disorder is to have medical conditions ruled out.

If you would like my help, I have an online course that is available to start immediately. Dr Elaine Ryan

Do I need to see a doctor?

If you have panic attacks, you have probably already met with your doctor or attended A&E if your attack was severe.  

If you have not met with your doctor, I recommend making an appointment to rule out medical health conditions. Once ruled out, your GP will refer you to someone like myself, a psychologist, or other mental health professionals to undertake an assessment.

How is panic disorder diagnosed?

Your psychologist will use a manual called the DSM5 to help with diagnosis. DSM5 stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition. The psychologist will take a complete history and may perform other assessments to rule out other anxiety disorders.

Once you have a diagnosis, you will have the assurance that the startling physical symptoms you experience result from panic and not a medical emergency. I had panic disorder myself, and it can take time to accept that there is nothing physically wrong with you.

Your psychologist will then discuss treatment options with you.

How to get over panic attacks. 

When people first attend therapy, they want to know how to stop panic attacks. Before I discuss the models of treatment that work best for panic, I would like to discuss the psycho-educational aspect of panic disorder.

Understanding panic attacks.

Psycho-education refers to providing education about a mental health condition. This part of treatment teaches you about panic and helps you understand what is happening in your body and why.

What causes panic attacks?

Your brain is overreacting to typical 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.  

You are getting a reaction regularly that is reserved to come out rarely (as it takes up so much energy). The response you are getting each time you have an anxiety attack is when your brain thinks you are in danger.

What are the symptoms of panic attacks?

Physical symptoms

Emotional symptoms

For a complete list of symptoms, please see here.

Why do I get them?

People report different reasons or triggers for their panic. I shall explain some situations people experience panic in below.

Specific places.

People can have panic attacks that occur in specific places, such as

This list is not exhaustive, and you can add your place or situation to help make this article more personal. 

Why do you end up having a panic attack in the same places?

If you had a panic attack in a shop and then forgot about it, it may not happen again.

However, most people who experience regular panic attacks change their behaviour following the first attack. They avoid the place it happened out of fear of it happening again. Or they may ask someone to accompany them when shopping in case they need help.

If you cannot avoid the shop or place where you had a panic attack, you might worry excessively before you have to return to the place. This worry creates anticipatory anxiety.

These changes; in what you do and how you think primes your brain that a feared thing is about to happen.

Panic in relation to physical feelings

People can experience panic attacks when they feel certain sensations in their body. You might feel light headed, sweaty, or have heart palpitations, and you can fear these sensations or misinterpret them and end up in a panic.

Will they affect my health?

Over a prolonged period, any form of stress is not good and will more than likely take its 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. They also chip away at your confidence and start to affect most aspects of your life.

Treatment and Self Help

Now that you have some understanding, I shall discuss models of therapy and where to get help.

So what works?

Start with self help

I recommend a stepped care model of therapy, which means starting small, and if not successful, move to the next stage of the model.

Step 1 – self help. This does not have to be my course, you can use self help books, or information freely available on my site or the internet.

Step 2. If self help was not enough, meet with a therapist for individual therapy.