The signs of an anxiety attack: what to do and how to help

Written by: Top Doctors®
Edited by: Top Doctors®

Anxiety attacks, or panic attacks as they are commonly known, are more than a simple feeling or thought. They can produce physical responses, which can be frightening and difficult to understand in the moment of the attack – many people assume that the attack is related to some other health condition, such as a heart attack.

Panic attacks can be triggered by specific situations, such as feeling trapped or anticipating important life events like an interview, but they can sometimes happen from nowhere, or as an isolated case. If you experience one panic attack, it can be worrying to think that you, at some point, may experience another.

What happens during an anxiety attack?

A panic attack is a sudden onset of intense discomfort, or fear, which usually peaks in minutes. Because this onset is so abrupt, this can frighten and lead people to think they have a serious medical problem, especially as symptoms can mimic other conditions, such as breathing problems or heart disease.

Anxiety attacks are not all one and the same – they range in symptoms, and normally display several from the following list:

  • Sweating
  • Chest pain/discomfort
  • A shortness in breath
  • Choking sensations
  • Palpitations, and an acceleration in heart rate
  • Dizziness, or feeling faint
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling chills, or heat
  • Feeling numb, or tingling sensations
  • A feeling of being detached from yourself (sometimes called depersonalisation)
  • Fear that you are losing control
  • A strong fear of imminent death

Anxiety attacks manifest in ways that are more physical rather than mental, so they can be difficult for the sufferer to understand. Panic attacks are usually a one-time event, but they can develop further into panic disorder, which is characterised by recurrent attacks, or becoming fearful of attacks.

Can I calm myself down during a panic attack?

Panic attacks can be very scary, but there are practices that can help you relieve symptoms.

  1. If an attack develops, you can try the method of ‘grounding’, which can help to calm you down. This method involves you becoming aware of your senses and relinquishing some control, by listing five things you can see, four you can touch, three that you can hear, two things you can smell, and one you can taste.
  2. During panic attacks, you may hyperventilate, but even if you are not, controlling your breathing can help you to reduce the stress you feel, and send oxygen to your brain. Try to stop, and slow down your breathing, breathing deeply and trying to concentrate on your breath. It can sometimes help to hold your breath to start with, to help with feelings of choking, or an inability to breathe.
  3. Try to focus on your senses and what you are feeling. Notice what is going on with your body, and make a list of sensations, for example ‘my heart is beating quickly, I feel nauseous, my hands are shaking’. Try to stay in the same place, which can help to ground you and help the body to realise that danger is not imminent. It can also help if you distract yourself, for example saying the alphabet or counting backwards from 100.

What can I do if I experience frequent panic attacks?

Panic disorder can be consuming, and can very much affect a person’s life. However, it is treatable, and there are ways to manage it. Treatment depends on the individual – there is not one way of tackling panic disorder. Usually therapists or psychiatrists can prescribe therapy, or medication, or sometimes use a combination of both.  


By Topdoctors

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