I hear the word ‘panic attack’ being thrown about with ease around the workplace. I’ve always thought people were being dramatic. Now I find myself frightened, my breathing quickening and my heart beating very fast when I get stressed – which is happening a lot. Am I suffering from panic attacks? What are signs and symptoms? What can I do about it? A reader who wishes to remain anonymous asks.
Answered by Dr Harry Horgan, Clinical Psychologist, German Neuroscience Center.
The experience of a panic attack varies quite a bit from person to person, but they are almost always characterised by a feeling that an impending disaster is about to take place. Within this experience, people often encounter racing thoughts; an inability to think 'straight'; rapid breathing; an elevated heart rate; sweating; tunnel-vision; dizziness; fear; and an overpowering urge to escape from their current environment.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a useful framework for examining panic attacks in order to overcome them. CBT allows us to develop an understanding of the ways in which our thoughts, emotions, behaviour, and physiology have a very close interconnection. [CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps identify how a person feels about a situation and in doing so rationalize and change it.]
CBT research has found that people who experience panic attacks tend to have a heightened awareness of the ongoing physical sensations within their body. This heightened awareness can be the initial trigger in the vicious cycle of panic. For example, a person might notice their heart beating a bit more forcefully than usual. A thought or interpretation that might follow could be "Something is wrong here". This may lead to a wave of anxiety including a release of adrenaline. This has the effect of elevating heart rate further and lead to the person to have a further thought: "Something is definitely wrong - I'm having a heart attack". This can lead to even further anxiety and further adrenaline release and so a vicious cycle has set in resulting in panic.
A very useful method to stop the escalation of the panic cycle is to challenge the catastrophic thoughts as they arise. What other interpretations could there be for an elevated heart rate? Perhaps it’s a particularly hot day, perhaps someone just finished a strong cup of coffee, or maybe someone just climbed a flight of stairs to get to the office. Considering these alternative explanations may lead to a reduced level of subsequent anxiety and a means of exiting the vicious cycle of panic before escalation occurs.
This is just one example of how panic might be experienced and there is no 'one-size-fits-all' understanding. Self-help materials are available online by searching for 'CBT for panic self-help'. A good evidence base exists for the successful treatment of panic attacks should a person wish to seek help from an experienced mental health professional.
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Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of doctors are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.