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How to Deal with Panic Attacks

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson will provide an overview of panic attacks, while emphasizing coping skills for those who suffer from them. In addition, some coping strategies for those who are close to people suffering from panic attacks will also be discussed.

Panic Attacks

Amy was at the store doing her usual Sunday grocery shopping. While walking down the aisle looking for her favorite chips, she suddenly heard the elevator music volume increase and saw the store lighting intensify. Trying to make sense of what she was experiencing, her heart started racing and she began perspiring and breathing rapidly. The more she focused on her physical symptoms, the worse they became. Was she having a heart attack? What was happening to her?

After abruptly abandoning her grocery cart for a trip to the emergency room, Amy learned that what she had experienced was a full-blown panic attack. Panic attacks are symptoms of a mental health condition known as panic disorder. They are terrifying to experience, send many people to the hospital emergency room every year, and are often, as in Amy's case, confused with heart attack symptoms. It is estimated that about 2.4 million Americans suffer from panic disorder, a number which is expected to increase with the growing complexity and demands of our society.

Panic attacks tend to stem from anxiety and stress, stimulating the flight-or-fight response in situations where it is not specifically warranted. The flight-or-fight response tells the body it is in immediate danger, and causes a physical response to fight that danger. In Amy's case, the attack happened in the grocery store where there was no clear danger that warranted her body's extreme response. This makes panic attacks even more frightening because there is seemingly no reason to have this intense physical reaction.

A panic attack can include the following symptoms:

  • Racing heart
  • Dizziness
  • Tightness in chest
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Feeling doomed
  • Perspiring
  • Difficulty breathing

Once people suffer one panic attack, they are likely to have other panic attacks in the future.

Learning to Cope with Panic Attacks

Although panic attacks are highly treatable, it is essential for people suffering from them to learn effective coping strategies to prevent their lives from becoming severely limited. After Amy's initial attack, fears of the attack happening again - known as anticipatory anxiety - kept her away from crowded public places for months until she learned some ways to deal with her symptoms. Effective coping techniques include the following:

  • Learning relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, meditation, and massage can all help relax breathing and muscles.
  • Confronting the fear. Sometimes, certain conditions, events, or places are triggers for a panic attack. In Amy's case, triggers included places where crowds would gather, such as the grocery store. By confronting the fear and putting yourself in the environment as often as you can, you can teach your body that the trigger is not associated with any real danger.
  • Exercise. Taking part in regular exercise activities is a great way to relieve the stress and anxiety that are associated with panic attacks. Taking a daily brisk walk, going for a run, or hitting the gym are all effective coping strategies.
  • Support groups. There are many support groups that can help individuals who suffer from panic attacks. They provide reinforcement and help people realize they are not alone.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Patients who suffer from panic attacks can be helped by CBT, which is a hands-on therapy that teaches coping strategies.

Although all of the above coping techniques for dealing with panic attacks have been proven effective, sometimes they are not enough on their own, and need to be combined with medication. Some of the more common drugs used to treat panic attacks include Xanax, Prozac, Valium, and Paxil. As some of these medications can be habit-forming, it is essential that patients who take these are medically supervised on a regular basis.

Helping Someone Who Suffers from Panic Attacks

People who suffer from panic attacks often feel isolated, and withdraw from social situations because they feel there is something wrong with them. If someone in your life suffers from panic attacks, the following are some things you can do if you are with them during an attack:

  1. Stay calm and reassuring. Make sure you tell your friend that this is temporary and will pass, and provide assurance that nothing bad will happen to them.
  2. Remove the person from the area. Move them to a quiet place where they can sit down.
  3. Ask them what they need. Don't assume they need a glass of juice or water; instead, ask what you can get for them.
  4. Help them focus. Ask the person to complete a repetitive simple physical task such as stretching to get them back into focus.
  5. Encourage slow and steady breathing. Help them by counting aloud their inhales and exhales.
  6. Offer encouraging words. Let them know that you are there for them, and that they can get through this.
  7. Don't panic! If you panic, the event is likely to endure, and the anxiety and panic is likely to worsen.
  8. Ensure the person they are not alone and be supportive of their efforts to seek treatment.

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