Hannahs helpful hints: Panic attacks

Written on Monday 10th February 2020

*** Hannah's Helpful Hints ***

An understanding …
Panic attacks can be extremely scary, particularly if they feel as if they come out of the blue.
Common symptoms include: feeling hot, feeling sweaty, heart racing, tight chest, difficulty breathing, clammy hands, feeling sick, feeling dizzy, stomach churning, blurred vision, lightheaded, numbness, pins and needles and tingling amongst others.

To understand panic attacks, we need to first understand our survival mechanism - the fight/flight/freeze response. This survival response is there to protect us from danger, it enables us to perform to our maximum capacity whether that is to run (flight), battle (fight), or stay still (freeze). This is an amazing system that we have as humans. In order for our body to function in this superior state, it needs to go through a number of bodily changes.

To deal with danger our body:
* Redistributes our blood moving it away from our extremities (fingers, toes and head) towards the major muscle groups (this can make us feel lightheaded, dizzy, have pins and needles or tingling)
* Pumps our heart faster to increase blood flow (this can make us feel like our heart is racing)
* Tries to take in more oxygen (this can make us feel short of breath and tight chested)
* Cools our body down (this can lead to sweating or clammy feelings)
* Stops digesting food as this is not a priority (this can lead to stomach churning sensations)

All these bodily changes happening at once can be really scary.

All the changes that our body goes through as part of the fight or flight response are their to enable us to deal effectively with danger - to fight the danger, run away from the danger or the third (often less talked about response) to keep us still (freeze). You'll hear testimonies of people at disaster events describing running faster than they've ever run, or lifting things they never knew they could lift, or freezing still without getting any cramps. Our body is performing to it's optimum ability. If there was a real danger, we would be so thankful. 

Unfortunately sometimes this message is false - it's a false alarm. Our brain is incorrectly been told there is danger when there isn't.

Advice to help …

The first thing to know is that the fight/flight response can't harm us, it's not going to lead to death or us passing out or having a heart attack. As said above, it's there to protect us, our body can sustain this response for a prolonged period of time.

If we know that there is no danger, we know that it's a false alarm.
So what we need to do is effectively communicate to our brain that this alarm is false and that we don't need our survival response.

A panic attack is the result of our response to the false alarm fight/flight response.
If you think about how we respond, often we are panicking about the symptoms - thoughts can include "I'm going to die" "I can't breathe" "I'm going to have a heart attack" "Something bad is happening". None of these fears are true. Unfortunately these thoughts will feed a further message to the brain that there is danger, so the symptoms will get worse.
Another response is to change what we are doing - changes can include sitting down, holding on to something, drinking water, taking medication, leaving a situation, deep breathing etc. Again this also sends a message to the brain that there's a danger, otherwise we wouldn't be doing all these things surely?

In reality we don't need to do anything different at all. Once our body realises that the danger is a false alarm, the fight/flight/freeze response will go away by itself. These symptoms can't harm us.

Therapy for panic looks at how to learn to respond differently to the false alarm, how to deal with it in a way that means that panic attacks don't result.

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