What is a panic attack?
If you have ever experienced a sudden feeling of intense anxiety coupled with physical symptoms such as dizziness and a racing heartbeat, the chances are you may have suffered from a panic attack.
Panic attacks occur when the body’s natural response to a dangerous or stressful situation goes into overdrive. Our body has a built in ‘fight or flight’ response which can be incredibly useful when it comes to facing situations of genuine danger. For example, if you were to encounter a dangerous wild animal whilst on a hiking trip, the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism would flood your body with adrenaline and cortisol, sending blood and oxygen to your muscles giving you extra strength and energy to run away from the creature. This response would have been especially useful to our tribesman ancestors who might have encountered dangerous beasts or angry opposing tribes on a regular basis, and who could use this extra burst of adrenaline and energy to fight or flee their way out of a difficult situation. Nowadays, however, the situations that tend to cause us fear or stress are often not of the kind that you can helpfully run away from or fight. A high-pressure work event, for instance; or a stressful social encounter cannot be solved in this way. For some people, however, these kinds of events can send their fight-or-flight responses into overdrive, and without an appropriate way of expending the pent up tension and energy caused by this flood of hormones, their bodies can be sent into a series of symptoms that we now recognise as a panic attack. Panic attacks can both be a sign of mental health, and can cause us to experience poor mental health, as many sufferers will feel ongoing anxiety surrounding the idea of experiencing another attack.
Panic attacks have many symptoms, some more common than others. These include but are not limited to:
- An increased heartbeat
- A feeling of faintness or dizziness
- A feeling of loss of control
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Fast, shallow breathing
- Chest pain
- Abdominal pain
- A tingling feeling in your fingers or lips
- A feeling of being very hot or very cold
- A feeling of weakness or shakiness in the legs
- Feeling disconnected from your own body or from things around you (dissociation)
Panic attack sufferers may feel some or all of these symptoms, and they may continue for between 5 and 20 minutes, although bear in mind that some people may also feel remnants of these symptoms in the hours that follow the panic attack itself.
Commonly, panic attack sufferers may believe they are having a heart attack whilst the panic attack is taking place, and many fear that they are going to die. It is important to remember, however, that although highly unpleasant, a panic attack is not dangerous and does not usually result in harm to the sufferer and is not an indication of poor physical health.
How can hypnotherapy help?
Some people will start to experience panic attacks on a regular basis. This is known as panic disorder. When this happens, it is important to seek help, as these regular occurrences can have a big effect on your happiness and mental wellbeing. Regular panic attacks can also be a sign of underlying mental health issues.
It is important to visit your GP if you start experiencing regular panic attacks, as they can refer you for various treatments which may be able to help you to overcome panic disorder and any associated anxiety. The treatments usually prescribed include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Psychotherapy and medication.
As with all issues pertaining to mental health, the experience of each person is always unique. Each person will have a different response to the various types of treatments prescribed for panic attacks, and many may feel that some treatments work better for them than others. Many people will try several different forms of treatment before finding the right one, and it is often necessary to carry out your own research as to what is likely to work best for you, and perhaps consider some private treatments that are not widely offered by the NHS.
Hypnotherapy is one such treatment that can work extremely well for some panic attack sufferers. Hypnotherapy for panic attacks can be carried out in a few different ways. Hypnotherapy will always involve the hypnotherapist bringing a patient into a relaxed and suggestible state called hypnosis. Once in this state, the hypnotherapist will speak to the patient and lead their attention to various things. A hypnotherapist might bring a panic attack sufferer’s attention to the feelings, thoughts and sensations they have whilst a panic attack is taking place. The hypnotherapist can then give the patient various positive reinforcements, that will then be triggered in their mind the next time a panic attack starts to occur.
Sometimes, the source of a person’s panic attacks can be found in a moment of trauma in their early lives. In regression hypnotherapy, the hypnotherapist places the patient into a relaxed state of hypnosis and delves into their early memories. In doing so, they can help the patient to revisit this moment of trauma and manage the way they feel about this moment or even reframe the way that they look at it. Managing this trauma can have a knock-on effect on the way the person feels about themselves in the present day, and can help to get rid of panic attacks.
One single-subject study carried out in 1990 looked into the efficacy of self-hypnosis on a patient suffering from panic attacks. The method proved to be highly effective, and the report reads ‘Results showed an increased sense of control, improved self-concept, elimination of pathological symptoms, and cessation of panic attacks.’
Top tips for panic attack sufferers
If you are suffering from panic disorder, you may wish to consider including hypnotherapy as part of your treatment plan to help you manage the disorder in the long term. In the short term, however, when you feel the tell-tale symptoms of a panic attack starting to appear, it can be useful to have some tools at your disposal to help you to manage your panic attacks in real time. Here are some helpful tips for methods which can help you to deal with a panic attack as it occurs:
Do not try to fend off a panic attack- accept what is happening to you
Trying to fend off an oncoming panic attack, or starting to feel angry or upset that it is occurring can have the negative effect of increasing the symptoms of the panic attack even further. One of the best things you can do is treat yourself (and the panic attack) with kindness and acceptance, and allow yourself to experience the feelings and sensations that are coming over you, however unpleasant.
Remember that the panic attack will pass
No matter how bad you are feeling whilst a panic attack is taking place, try to remind yourself that what you are experiencing is not permanent and that you will eventually feel better. Also, try to remind yourself that what you are experiencing is not dangerous and you are not in harm’s way.
Take deep, slow breaths
Regulating your breathing can help calm your body and bring the panic attack under control. Full, slow breaths are helpful, whilst quick, shallow ones are not. Perhaps try breathing in through your nose whilst slowly counting to five, then breathing out slowly through your mouth, once again slowly counting to five.
Ground yourself in your senses
Notice what you can see, hear and smell around you, as well as anything you may be able to touch and feel- and even consider putting a strong-flavoured food in your mouth so that you can focus on a distinctive taste. You could try naming out loud things that you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch in the space around you. Focusing on your senses can help you to ground yourself in the here-and-now and can help prevent dissociation or feelings of disorientation and confusion.
I hope these ideas and tips help you to manage your panic attacks when you experience them. These types of techniques can also be reinforced during a session of hypnotherapy, teaching you, for instance, to instinctively carry out a particular breathing technique when you start to feel the symptoms of a panic attack approaching.
If you or someone you know is suffering from panic attacks, visit my page on Stress and Anxiety to find out more about how hypnotherapy may be able to help you. Contact me to learn more about how hypnotherapy could be the right treatment for you, for this, and many other issues you may be experiencing.