When something frightens us or makes us anxious we react to it. For most people this is a measured response, for others, this response is greatly exaggerated.

A simple way to explain a panic attack is a massive overreaction which feels completely out of our control.

Something which in itself can cause someone to feel even more scared, adding to the problem. 

Typically, someone who is having a panic attack will have one or more of the following symptoms; uncontrollable shaking, fast breathing, fast heartbeat – feeling like they may be having a heart attack and or chest pains, crying, sweating profusely, unable to move, feeling faint.

These symptoms are likely to be most intense at around 10 minutes into the episode. Some people may have several panic attacks in a short period of time.

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Panic attacks are usually brought on by stress and anxiety. For some, they can be an extreme reaction to a one-off event, such as witnessing an accident.

For others, they may become a frequent reaction to any number of triggers which can vary widely from person to person.

Things such as unusual social situations, having to see the boss, being in a crowded place, going over bridges, getting in a lift, and taking some kind of exam or test.

For others, it may be when they are reminded of some earlier trauma in their life. 

An obvious preventative measure would be to identify what the triggers are, this is not always obvious. If you are able to identify a trigger then avoiding it would be the answer.

However this may be a lot easier said than done, and another way would be to learn how to control one’s reactions to these triggers so that your reaction doesn’t escalate to a full-blown panic attack. 

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There are some well-tried and tested things which can be very helpful. 

A frequent recommendation is to control breathing. Breathe in deeply, hold it, exhale slowly and count as a further distraction method.  

There are several other methods which are known as 'grounding techniques'. This is where a person can distract themselves from their thoughts during a panic attack by refamiliarising themselves with their current surroundings, concentrating on and identifying:

  • 5 things they can see;
  • 4 things they can hear;
  • 3 things they can touch;
  • 2 things they can smell; 
  • 1 thing they can taste.  

The numbers are less important than the use of all the senses.  

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If the current surroundings are part of the problem, then just focusing on thinking of another calmer place can be beneficial. 

Panic attacks can be very disruptive. Your GP has expertise in such matters and should be your first port of call if you are affected by them. 

Next week I will be explaining what we mean by the term personality disorder. 

If you feel you are in a mental health crisis or emergency and may be in danger of causing harm to yourself or others then please contact your GP, the Samaritans on 116 123 or attend A&E.