Most of us have, at some point in our life, experienced the feeling of panic.

It presents differently in everyone. It may be an upset stomach, profuse sweating, trouble breathing or even chest pain. But one thing that is the same for everyone is – it is not a pleasant experience.

In fact, it can be truly terrifying.

Panic attacks (or anxiety attacks) can hit anytime, anywhere. They may be subtle and manageable, or completely debilitating.

We have seen a growing awareness in recent years of panic attacks. We know they exist – and we know what they might feel like. We know people who experience them and we know they are not fun.

But what exactly is a panic attack? What is happening to your body – and your brain – when you have one?

In this article, we outline your body’s physiological response during an anxiety attack – as well as some helpful tips to manage anxiety.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an episode of intense anxiety, which causes the physical response of fear. The symptoms may include a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, hot flushes, dry mouth, dizziness, trembling and muscle tension.

Panic attacks can happen unexpectedly – and are often not related to any external threat. It can last anywhere from a few minutes to hours.

Here’s what you may not know – panic attacks are fairly common. Up to 5 in every 100 Australians report experiencing a panic attack at some stage in their life, while one quarter of Australians will experience an anxiety condition in their lifetime.

Without treatment, frequent and prolonged panic attacks can be severely disabling and have the potential to lead to a panic disorder. The good news is, panic attacks can be treated with a range of therapies including psychotherapy, stress management, relaxation techniques and medication.

Why do panic attacks happen?

When you are faced with a threat, your brain orders the autonomic nervous system to activate the “fight or flight” response.

Fight or flight is your body preparing and protecting against perceived danger. Whether it’s a venomous snake or a rollercoaster – if a threat is anticipated, your nervous system springs into action.

The hormone adrenaline will flood into your bloodstream, and this puts your body on high alert. Your heartbeat quickens, which sends more blood to your muscles. Your senses get sharper, as a protection mechanism.

All of these changes, which happen in an instant, give you the energy you need to confront danger – or get out of harm’s way quickly. Fight – or flight.

A panic attack can occur when this response is inappropriately triggered – as in, when there is no real danger. You may experience these symptoms in harmless situations, like eating dinner or even while asleep.

Managing a panic attack

There are several things you can do during an anxiety attack to manage your symptoms and deactivate the fight or flight response.

Focus on your breathing

First things first – try to take control of your breathing.

If you can, sit down or get comfortable. Concentrate on making your breath slow and even. Try to inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, then exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds and hold again for 4 seconds. (This technique is known as box breathing.)

Remind, reassure, remember

Remind yourself gently that you’re not in danger and that the attack will pass.

Reassure yourself that the symptoms of a panic attack are uncomfortable, but not life threatening.

Remember that you’ve felt these feelings before and nothing bad happened to you.

Shift your focus

If you’re in a public place and don’t have the space to sit or deep breathe, focus your attention on something outside your symptoms.

For example, distract yourself by counting backwards in threes from 100, recall the words from a favourite song or concentrate on the sights and sounds around you.

An ABC News Weather Presenter has spoken publicly of his battle with anxiety – and experiencing panic attacks live in air! Read his story for inspiration.

Panic attacks – riding the wave

Perhaps the most important way to manage a panic attack is to ‘ride the wave.’

Imagine your panic attack as if you are surfing (or boogie boarding, if that’s more your style) on a wave at the beach. Sometimes the wave will be a slight crest and sometimes it will be larger. Feel the exhilaration and the adrenaline that comes with each rise and fall of the wave. You can’t control it – so you accept the ride and go with the flow.

You don’t know how high each wave will be until you’re on it – and you don’t know how long the ride will take. But what you do know is, if you allow the wave to carry you, you will always end up back on the shore, on solid ground.

If you accept the symptoms of a panic attack and ride them out instead of fighting them, they are more likely to subside.

Tips to manage anxiety

As mentioned above, acceptance is a really important part of managing anxiety. Accepting that you are on the wave – and rather than fighting it and trying to control the situation – can be the key to reducing frequency and intensity of panic attacks.

Wrestling with anxiety can often lead to negative self-talk. Things like ‘stop panicking for no reason!’ ‘Get a grip!’ ‘Why can’t you see there is no danger, why can’t you control this!’ are not helpful.

Anxiety is common and in reality, a normal part of living life. Stress happens and sometimes it is going to take its toll. Beating yourself up about how you handle it will only serve to make things worse.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is commonly used by psychologists to treat anxiety.

When we use ACT, we begin with a discussion about what our client wants and how they have tried to achieve these aims. We use storytelling and creative language to connect with you and demonstrate the uncontrollability and acceptability of the psychological experience.

The therapy is not focused on eliminating unwanted thoughts, emotions and sensations. It is more concerned with cultivating psychological flexibility – the ability to change behaviour depending on how useful it is to you.

Learn more about how to treat anxiety

If you would like to learn more about our approach to treating anxiety – get in touch.

Our experienced online psychologists can work with you to overcome your challenges and give you a better understanding of how anxiety impacts your life.

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