Fighting panic attacks is possible – your life will thank you

Anyone can have a panic attack, but people with anxiety are more susceptible to them. According to psychologist Ana Carina Marques, it is fundamental to know what triggers the situation, how to prevent it and to ask for help if necessary.

Fighting panic attacks is possible

Rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, dizziness, sweating, shaking and a sense of impending death. Anyone who has experienced a panic attack is familiar with these symptoms and the nightmare they can be in your life. In the extreme, if the situation cannot be treated, the fear of being afraid can cause serious disruption in the affected person’s daily life, who tends to avoid anything that could potentially trigger another attack. It is therefore important that the problem be diagnosed and treated, which often involves the use of health professionals.

June 18 marks International Panic Day, to raise awareness of this problem, drawing attention to the need not only to understand it, but also to adopt measures that help mitigate situations that generate stress and panic.

According to psychologist and psychotherapist Ana Carina Marques, “a panic attack is characterized by a sudden episode of intense discomfort, anxiety or fear, accompanied by physical and/or emotional symptoms“, which “can occur at any time or in any situation and last between five and twenty minutes”. Despite the intensity, “the diagnosis is not always immediate, because the symptoms are physical and can easily indicate a cardiac or respiratory problem, for example,” warns the specialist, which is why “as a general rule, always look for physical causes that could cause the discomfort felt.” Thus, “in the majority of cases, the diagnosis is confirmed only after several visits to the doctor, and after having carried out various tests that confirm that the person is physically healthy”.

Most frequent symptoms

To be considered a panic attack, at least four of the following symptoms must occur:

  • Palpitations or rapid heartbeat
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath or choking sensation
  • Trembling or spasms, sweating
  • Dizziness, dizziness or fainting
  • Nausea, feeling sick, abdominal discomfort and diarrhea.
  • Sensation of numbness or tingling
  • Fear of going crazy or losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Feeling of unreality

Attention to anxiety and depression

Although anyone can have a panic attack (it is estimated that this problem affects about 11% of adults worldwide each year), these episodes “are more common in cases of anxiety and certain depressive states,” says the specialist, recalling that “there is always a combination of social, genetic and environmental factors.”

In Portugal, according to data from the National Epidemiological Study on Mental Health, anxiety is the most frequent disorder, affecting 16.5% of the population, with a predominance of women. Therefore, it is estimated that this is the population that tends to be most affected by panic attacks in our country. It is also known that in 2019, 8% of the resident population in Portugal presented symptoms of depression, according to data from the National Health Survey of that year.

According to Ana Carina Marques, “in some situations there are triggers, already expected or known, as in the case of phobias, for example, but also in response to stressful events, important losses, traumatic episodes, among others.” However, “some episodes occur unexpectedly, spontaneously, without apparent cause, during sleep, upon awakening, while walking, while traveling, constituting a sign, or signs, of psychological malaise”.

When panic becomes pathological

Some people recover without difficulty from a panic attack – these are situations where a single episode occurred without repeating – but others end up developing what is known as the panic syndrome. In the words of the psychologist, who gives consultations at the Clínica CUF of São Domingos de Rana and at MindProject, in Lisbon, “the panic syndrome is the appearance of recurrent panic attacks, which are normally accompanied by an excessive preoccupation with the fear of the appearance of future panic attacks, which may involve changes in behavior, in order to avoid situations that may trigger panic attacks“.

It is a disorder with quite harmful consequences, since “the permanent anticipation leads to the avoidance of situations or places associated with panic episodes, can intensify physical health problems, such as fear of heart and respiratory problems, among others, which contribute to the increase of the general discomfort of the person,” specifies.

In these cases, “it is important to seek professional help,” stresses the psychologist, especially since “the symptomatology is usually very intense and, when it becomes constant, there are changes in behavior to avoid the people or situations that led to the occurrence of the attack,” which “has serious implications for the lives of individuals and their families, compromising their quality of life.”

Yes, the panic is about

Panic disorder is estimated to affect less than 1% of the population and is most often diagnosed in late adolescence or early adulthood. Although it significantly affects the quality of life of sufferers, the good news is that it can be effectively treated. So when intervention is needed, “the most common treatment combines a pharmacological approach with psychotherapy.“, clarifies Ana Carina Marques. “A joint intervention of drugs – usually benzodiazepines and antidepressants – that allow to decrease or numb the symptom, on the one hand, and psychotherapy, which allows to dismantle, deconstruct and re-signify the fear and integrate techniques and strategies that lead to the decrease or disappearance of the symptomatology,” justifies the psychotherapist also.

Do I need professional help?

According to the National Institute for Emergency Medical Services (NIEMS) Center for Psychological Support and Crisis Intervention, you may need the support of a health care professional to treat panic attacks that. :

  • You are anxious most of the time or have frequent panic attacks;
  • You feel that your personal and professional life is affected;
  • You find it very difficult to manage your anxiety;
  • Avoid certain situations or places for fear of having a panic attack.

Prevention and control: how do you go about it?

When asked about the best way to prevent and control panic attacks, Ana Carina Marques admits that “there is no single recipe, because each person reacts differently”. Despite this, she emphasizes that “tranquility is naturally the best antidote to anxiety”, so “trying to stay calm, trying to control your breathing, finding a calm and safe place, trying to counter negative thoughts and distracting yourself” are possibilities to consider.
On the other hand, for those who accompany the person suffering from a panic attack, “it is fundamental to try to remain calm and to understand, in a gentle and delicate way, what they can do”, since “sometimes it is enough just to be there”.

3 steps to control a panic attack

  1. Try to think of something different from what you are feeling, for example
    Describe what you see or tell a story to distract yourself from what is happening;
  2. Try to control your breathing by sitting or lying down in a comfortable way and breathing in and out slowly and deeply. Ideally, breathe in through your nose (notice your stomach filling up) and breathe out through your mouth;
  3. Relax your muscles in a quiet, dimly lit environment. Sitting or lying on your stomach, breathe slowly and deeply while contracting and relaxing the muscles in your body (feet, legs, stomach, hands, arms, shoulders, mouth, nose, and face), focusing on the difference between contraction and relaxation. Source: INEM’s Crisis Intervention and Psychological Support Center

Source: INEM Crisis Intervention and Psychological Support Center.

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