Panic Attacks: Causes And Prevention

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Image credit: photo by Olesya Yemets on Unsplash.

If you or anyone you know has ever experienced a panic attack, you'll understand better it's an experience that can be incredibly frightening.

You may wonder if you’re going crazy, if you are ever going to be normal again, and if it will ever end. You may have sweaty palms, or go cold all over. Your body could be numb and you might be feeling as if you’re having a heart attack. You might feel as if you are going to die.

More About Why Panic Attacks And Why They Can Have Unusual Effects

You may be surprised to learn:

  • A panic attack may be sudden.
  • Or a panic attack may be part of a rolling continuum that lasts for hours with one attack cascading or leading to another.
  • You may feel as if you are outside of your body, experiencing and seeing things from a distance.
  • Your heart might race, or you could feel very trapped and claustrophobic.
  • This might be the first time you’ve had a panic attack, or the fiftieth time.
  • You may not be able to predict when a panic attack is going to occure.
  • You may not even know what brings panic attacks on.
  • They might happen when you’re stressed, or ...
  • Panic attacks might happen when you feel as if you’re relaxed. Indeed, if you have frequent panic attacks, you may have noticed that relaxing might even bring one on!
  • One theory from Donald F. Klein, MD, Columbia University suggests that panic attacks are linked to our suffocation “alarms”, and when CO2 levels rise as we try to relax, that can trigger another panic attack.

What panic attacks have two key characteristics in common:

  • A shortness of breath (called dyspnea), as well as ...
  • The sense that you are unable to shut down your mind.

And, if you’ve already had a panic attack before, you may be worried that you’ll have another one, a so-called anticipatory attack.

The cycle of panic attacks can even last up to a month, turning into what is called panic disorder.

Does any of this sound familiar?

What Are Some Of The Reasons Panic Attacks Happen?

Panic attacks are thought to be caused by a malfunction of our own fear systems – as if our own body is sending out a “flight” response to a threat.

A panic attack has many of the same symptoms as suffocation: the dizziness, light-headed-ness, shortness of breath is our bodies’ way of telling us that we need more air.

In fact, one theory is that we might be unintentionally causing panic attacks by the way that we breathe.

Do you know if you are breathing from your stomach or your chest? Here’s a way to test:

  • Put your hand on your belly and then one hand on your chest and let yourself breathe normally.
  • It is important that the hand on your chest stays in place, while the hand on your stomach rises.
  • Breath needs to also come in and out through your nose, not your mouth.
  • Contrary to what many people have told us, the best way to breathe is for your diaphragm to lift upwards and off of your stomach area, almost as if you are pulling your lungs up with each breath.
  • Breathe easily and naturally without any forcing of the stomach or lungs.

And, while learning to breathe from our diaphragms might help, ...

There Are Also Other Elements At Play In A Panic Attack

  • Namely, our minds and our thoughts, and how we view the world during any one or more instances.

What Can We Do About Panic Attacks?

First, Understand And Appreciate That You Are Not Alone

Almost 18% of our population is affected by anxiety and panic attacks. That’s 40 million people in the U.S. alone! [Source: ADAA.org]

Secondly, You’re Reading Articles Like This One, So You’re Already On The Right Track

There are some really amazing therapies and therapists specifically for this type of anxiety, and the techniques used have been researched and proven.

While there is no instant “cure”, many people have found relief – both during a panic attack and with preventing future attacks – from cognitive behavioral therapy.

A Few Areas An Experienced Therapist May Help You Work On

While in the midst of a panic attack:

  • Tell yourself "I'm okay" (even if you don't believe it in the moment). This is only temporary.
  • Use movement. Don’t try to “relax” or calm yourself down; this might even make your current situation worse. Instead, do like Yo Gabba Gabba and “get all the wiggles out”. Shake your entire body and let go of all anxiety using really exaggerated motions. Dance, jump, and shake it all out like a wet dog.
  • Once you are a little bit calmer, slowly breathe in and out. Breathe in love and peace; breathe out anxiety and fear.
  • If you are anticipating future attacks:
    • Find a phrase that works for you, like “Right now, I’m okay.”
    • Find practices that help to remove stress from your life. Dr. Oz recommends “meditation, deep breathing, guided imagery and yoga,” because when “you train your mind and body to relax, it can be easier to control and panic attacks over time.”
    • Practice breathing from your diaphragm.

Actively Using The Techniques And Getting Professional Help

As with everything, these techniques only help if you can remember to use them. Some people find a bracelet at their wrist or a list of their personal phrases helps.

In addition, it’s very important to work on disrupting any uncomfortable thoughts that have kept you in place.

Many sufferers also feel as if they are trapped in a job, a house, or a certain life. As if there is no escape from the life that they have built.

A trained therapist will work with you not only the immediacy of panic attacks, but also the causes: whatever thoughts you are having that can bring you to a state of panic.

Because it is not only breathing that causes our attacks; we are also slaves to our own minds. Once we learn how to change our thought patterns, we can hope to consider ourselves “cured”. And wouldn’t that be a great thing?

Kathleen Dwyer-Blair, Therapist, Counselor, and Director of Nassau Guidance & Counseling.

At Nassau Guidance & Counseling, our psychotherapists are specially trained in panic disorder and panic attacks. They have a wealth of experience with all levels of anxiety, and treat each person as an individual. Their friendly and compassionate care has helped many to embrace life without fear.

Resources: (not associated with Nassau Guidance & Counseling):

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