I think I am having panic attacks. My heart races and I feel dizzy, hot and sweaty. It is very scary. Sometimes I can hardly breath and I feel like I might die. What causes it and how do I stop it?
Many people in the middle of a panic attack really believe they are about to die. That is what makes these attacks so debilitating.
Here is an example. A healthy nurse in her thirties started having heart pain and heart palpitations. She was certain she was having a heart attack. She was taken to hospital and checked out. Her heart and everything else was fine. She was diagnosed as having panic attacks.
As a medical professional, she understood the biology and the tests and logically knew a panic attack could not kill her. Nevertheless each time she suffered a panic attack, she still thought she was dying.
A panic attack is the cluster of symptoms you described. Your heart races. Your palms sweat. You feel faint, breathless, nauseous, flushed and agitated. The symptoms are a result of an adrenalin surge.
There are circumstances when these symptoms save your life. If you are in a fire, an accident, a robbery or some other physically threatening situation, adrenalin will be automatically pumped through your body. This is so you can run away really fast or fight more effectively for your life. You are made ready for action.
The panic attack is the body prepared for a serious threat but without any perceived physical attack. Without the action such as running or fighting, your body is swamped with chemicals associated with fear. You try to make sense of your extreme fearfulness. One explanation is the idea: “I am dying.”
Something triggered the panic attack. Unfortunately most people are unaware of the trigger. Often it is a fleeting thought – perhaps the thought of making a mistake. Once the symptoms are triggered the individual feels out of control and the panic attack plays out as usual.
Some people have panic attacks when they are taking on too much. The more stressed they are the more they have these attacks. Such people need to slow down and look after their health. They need to balance their own needs with the needs of others.
Learning how to breathe slowly and deeply can help you get control of a panic attack. It is a good idea to practice this whenever you feel slightly stressed or upset. This helps you stay on track, pushing out the breath even when you feel breathless during an attack.
What you say to yourself will have a impact on the severity of an attack. Saying fearfully “I can’t breathe, I am going to die” is likely to intensify the attack. Whereas the attack can abate when you say something like, “I am okay, it will pass, push the breath right out, stay calm, I am in control.”
This latter approach seems to work better when you stop fighting the attack. While you are fighting it you feel terrified. You believe you must stop the panic attack. But when you allow all that energy to flow through you, the terror subsides.