Q: The other day I was fine in the morning, and then all of a sudden I had a sense of terror; like there was impending doom coming over me from everywhere. I was not in control of myself, I began feeling my heart racing and experienced breathlessness. It did pass shortly after, but now I’m really scared it will return. Could I have anxiety, or is it more serious?
Firstly, I’m really sorry to hear you’ve experienced this uncomfortable and harrowing episode. I’ll endeavour to put your mind at ease, however – there is an important and immediate step you must take, and that is to get yourself checked over by a medical doctor without delay. Irrespective of the guidance and support that I or other fellow professionals can offer, seeking a medical opinion is non-negotiable for me.
I’ll begin with your question about anxiety. The answer is probably not. What you actually describe is pretty much a text-book panic attack. I’m often asked the difference between panic and anxiety – panic attacks appear suddenly, which is what you describe. While anxiety symptoms are slower builders, they become gradually more intense over time; there’s a layering effect developing over minutes, hours, or days.
Generally, panic will subside after a few minutes, whereas anxiety symptoms can often prevail for very long periods. So, let’s focus on panic attacks for now.
Here are some useful tips you can deploy during an attack. Focus on deep breathing, as hyperventilating is a symptom that will increase your fear. Deep breathing will help to reduce symptoms of panic during an attack.
If you’re able to control your breathing, then you’re able to sense that you’re in control of something, which is important. Focus on taking deep breaths, feel the air slowly filling your chest and then slowly leaving again.
Keep doing this on a count of four, then repeat. Some people use a paper bag to breath into, as this helps to offset the body losing carbon dioxide too quickly. Breathing into a paper bag aids rebreathing of exhaled air to put CO2 back into your bloodstream.
Learn to recognise what a panic attack is. By identifying that you’re having a panic attack instead of a heart attack, tell yourself that it is temporary, it will pass, and that you’re going to be OK!
Find an object to focus on. It can be helpful to find a single object to focus all of your attention on during a panic attack. Pick one object you can see and consciously note everything about it. For example, you may notice how the glass in a cabinet has inconsistent colouring or that it’s slightly lopsided.
Describe the patterns, shapes and size of the object to yourself in elaborate detail. Focus all of your energy on this and your panic level will decrease.
Get some exercise! Endorphins help to keep the blood pumping. Choose light exercise that is gentle on the body, such as swimming or walking.
Try repeating a mantra in your mind. This can be reassuring and relaxing and it can give you something to grip on to during a panic attack. Just a simple "This will pass", or a mantra that speaks to you personally – repeat it on a loop in your head until you feel the panic attack start to subside.
Panic attacks are normal – not normal in the sense that they should be an everyday occurrence, but normal in the sense that they are the physical manifestation of our ancient predecessors’ fight for survival, moreover whether they should be fighting their foe or turning on their heels and making a run for it – fight or flight. Most people claim they think they may be dying during an attack; the irony is that they are being subconsciously prepared for a better chance of survival!
The fear of fear is something different. This is when you have been so traumatised by the experience of having a panic attack, that you’re petrified you might have another at any moment. This is where phobias begin to creep in – and this is a whole separate topic – but as an example, if you had a panic attack while on the metro, you might shun using the metro again as you believe the very act of being on the metro was a factor in triggering the panic attack. And as a consequence, you may begin to associate all mass transit means as triggers that should be avoided. This is fertile ground for phobias to take hold.
By means of reassurance, many people have experienced panic attacks at some point in their lives. Take time to learn and understand what’s happening; there is a lot of valuable support and information out there and remember – they are a fact of life but should never dictate yours.
Russell Hemmings is a Dubai-based lifecoach and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and author of The Mind Diet and Active Positive Parenting (russellhemmings.co.uk). Got a problem? Our fantastic panel of renowned experts is available to answer all your questions related to fashion, well-being, nutrition, finance and hypnotherapy. Email your queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.