Emily thinks she is dying. Her heart is pounding so hard it feels it will fly out of her chest. Her palms are sweaty, her breathing constricted, she is nauseous and dizzy, and she fears she’ll faint. The ambulance is called. At the hospital, Emily is told she’s had a panic attack.
Panic attack? Anxiety attack? How can that be? Emily has trouble believing her powerful symptoms are psychologically based. But they are! Panic attacks involve authentic physiological reactions, but the cause is psychological. In other words, Emily is not dying, her heart, her lungs and every other part of her body is working fine. She is just exceedingly stressed, and that has led to the physical symptoms of a panic attack.
It is surprising how many people, when told the description of a panic attack, exclaim, “I’ve had them!”
In our lives full of schedules, deadlines, isolated child-rearing, dysfunctional or ill relatives and crammed-full-of-activity “leisure” time, panic attacks are increasingly common.
Emily cannot identify the cause of her panic attack. It doesn’t make any sense, she says. She has always been under control. She did well at school, she did well at university, and she’s got a great job. “Yeah, sure it’s demanding but I love it.” Her two kids are growing up and her husband is supportive. Her life, it seems, is perfect.
Or is it?
Emily, like many of us, is overloaded. She has gotten away with doing so much for so long that she thinks she can keep doing it forever. She cannot! Her subconscious is sending her a clear message that she better ease up. If she doesn’t, paralysing panic attacks will ensure she does.
Before the panic attacks, Emily had her life under control. Just. But at what cost?
Emily’s needs were last on the list. Before her needs were the needs of the kids, her husband, her job, her friends, her sick mother, other relatives, the garden, the house, the bills, the shopping and the cooking. Emily is giving and giving to everyone but herself. She doesn’t realise it (she’s too busy), but her emotional needs are not being met.
And so…..panic attacks. Her sub-conscious, self-survival mechanism is producing panic attacks.
How do you handle a panic attack?
- Breathe deep, slow and easy.
- Stop what you were doing and find a place to sit down.
- Allow yourself to have the symptoms, don’t fight it, give in and relax.
- Know it will soon pass.
- Forget about others; concentrate on breathing and relaxing.
- Realise you have overloaded yourself. Don’t push yourself, go home or find a place where you feel safe.
- Pamper yourself. Take it easy.
- Seek professional help if the attacks continue.
If Emily wants to prevent her panic attacks she will have to make some changes. She will need to rearrange her life so she has time for herself. As well, she may carry childhood hurts or experiences that are keeping her trapped in her self-sacrificing habits.
Although we can keep childhood hurts under control for many years in adulthood, a time comes when we need to resolve these hurts so we can move on successfully in our careers and personal life. Often these leftover issues from childhood make us what we are in adulthood. We may be driven, self-sacrificing or controlling and these attitudes may set us up for problems later.
Many people who have panic attacks do not consider themselves anxious people. This is why panic attacks can be so confusing. People who are usually under control do not expect or enjoy the unfamiliar, out-of-control feelings that accompany panic attacks. However keeping a tight rein on our lives including our emotions can actually set us up for panic attacks.
Knowing how to let go, making time for ourselves, being able to relax, to have fun and most importantly knowing how to be sad and grieve losses is the best way to protect ourselves from panic attacks.
Symptoms that may herald a panic attack:
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Racing heart
- Pain in the chest or throat
- Sweaty hands
- Feeling unusually hot or cold
- Light headed, dizzy or nauseous
Remember to have yourself checked by a doctor. Serious, life-threatening illnesses have similar symptoms.
Could you be a candidate for panic attacks?
- Do you just manage to get everything done?
- Do you constantly put other’s needs ahead of your own?
- Do you get anxious if everything is not under control?
- Do you worry about other people’s problems?
- Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed?
- Do you work long hours at home or at a job?
- Do you suspect deep down that you are not good enough?
If you answer yes to several of these questions, you may be a candidate for panic attacks. You would be wise to address these issues now.