What is Panic Disorder?
You may be diagnosed with panic disorder if you have sudden, extreme anxiety attacks or panic attacks that seem to happen regularly and out of the blue.
What does a panic attack feel like?
If you experience panic attacks, you might experience some of the following symptoms:
A pounding or racing heart
Shaking or trembling
Pains in your chest or stomach
Feeling as though you have something in your throat
Weak, shaking legs
Feeling that you are disconnected from your body or the world around you
“Jenny” (not her real name) described to me how she started having panic attacks after her husband left her. She was driving to work one day when she started shaking uncontrollably. Her heart started pounding really quickly and she had pains in her chest. She was sweating and said she really believed she was having a heart attack. She pulled the car over and said she had the strangest feeling that she was no longer part of the world. She felt as though she was in her own little bubble and couldn’t relate to anything around her. Everything looked hazy and sounds were muffled. She described it as the most frightening experience she had ever had.
After a few minutes, her heart slowed and the pain disappeared. She slowly regained her senses and was fine to continue her journey to work. She didn't tell anyone what had happened and put it down to stress.
When it happened again a few weeks later, this time whilst driving her children to school, Jenny went straight to her GP and was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder. She was put on a waiting list for CBT but came to see me as she felt she needed help straight away. She didn’t feel safe driving anymore and was getting stressed and anxious merely at the thought of getting into her car.
We used a combination of hypnosis and CBT to help her feel calmer and to notice the triggers that would lead to the anxiety attacks. By keeping a journal, Jenny realised that the panic attacks were often triggered by arguments with her teenage children, but sometimes they would happen completely out of the blue. In either case, she learned ways of dealing with them so that she didn’t have to be scared of driving.
Jenny’s fear of driving was totally understandable after what had happened, but on a practical level, she really needed to be able to continue driving. Instead of giving up her car, she came and got some help. It is not unusual for panic disorder to lead to other phobias, though. People who often experience panic in a public place will often avoid going out for fear of it happening again. This can lead to agoraphobia, where they become afraid to leave the safety of their home altogether. Some people develop social phobia or relate the panic to the first place it happened, such as a train or a busy supermarket and develop a phobia of that place.
Night Time Panic Attacks
While most people experience panic attacks during the day, especially when out in public, sometimes people wake in a state of panic at night. One man I worked with described how he would suddenly wake in a pool of sweat, his heart pounding, feeling that someone was sitting on his chest and he couldn’t breathe. Sometimes he would remember a nightmare that had woken him and sometimes, it just felt completely random. He never knew when his night time panic would strike and he began to dread going to sleep.
How Can I Deal with Panic Attacks?
If you have experienced a panic attack, you will understand how frightening it is. People describe to me how they often can’t catch their breath. They fear they will die and they tell me that they feel completely out of control of their body. Some people worry that they will vomit or faint and they worry about the embarrassment that would cause. Some feel that they disconnect from their body or that the world seems unreal to them, as though they are no longer a part of it.
If you feel yourself experiencing a panic attack, there are things you can do to feel calmer and regain some control.
Remember that you are quite safe. Keep repeating that to yourself in your mind.
Relax your whole body as much as possible and take deep breaths in and out. Try counting as you breathe:
Breathe in for the count of four
Hold it for the count of four
Slowly breathe out for the count of seven
Repeat this until your breathing regulates and your heart slows.
If you feel you need to move, try marching on the spot as you count your breaths in and out as above.
Focus on your senses one by one to help bring you back to the present moment and help you feel grounded. Some people find that it helps to keep a little pack with them. They fill the pack with something to taste, such as a boiled sweet or a mint, something to smell, such as a lavender bag or essential oil of some kind and something to touch, such as a small fluffy toy, some kind of stress ball or some plasticine or a fidget spinner, depending on your preference.
If you don’t have these things to hand then look around you and name three things you can see, three things you can hear and three things you can feel.
Keep a journal or notebook handy so that you can note down the way you are feeling or distract yourself by drawing or sketching.
After a Panic Attack
Take some time to rest and drink some water.
Talk to someone you trust and tell them that you have experienced a panic attack.
If you haven’t been diagnosed, it is important to see your doctor and explain what has happened so that anything physical can be ruled out.
How Can I Prevent a Panic Attack?
The best thing to do is to get some help so that you feel generally calmer. This way, you are less likely to have a panic attack in the first place. Hypnotherapy can help you to relax very deeply and can clear out some of those anxious thoughts and feelings. I also teach my clients some CBT techniques to prevent their thoughts and feelings overwhelming them.
The Stress Bucket
I always describe the “stress bucket” to my clients. Throughout the day, little things that happen are like little drops of stress that slowly fill our bucket. A bigger event will add more stress and fill it even more quickly. It may take a very slight trigger for the bucket to overflow and bring on a full-blown panic attack. We all need to make sure that we are finding ways to empty that bucket. This could be through hypnotherapy or you may find other ways to empty your bucket.
Exercise is a great way to remove some of that stress, as are hobbies and pastimes that you enjoy.
Spending time with friends and loved ones and talking through problems can help to drain that bucket.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help.
What do you do to empty your own stress bucket?
Think about what is causing your stress and filling that bucket and then what you can do to empty it and keep it from spilling over. Subscribers to my newsletter will have a copy of my stress bucket worksheet. If you'd like a copy, please get in touch and let me know.
If you would like to come and chat to me about one to one help, please contact me to arrange a free 15-minute consultation. You can explain how your stress or anxiety is affecting you on a daily basis and ask any questions that you might have. There is no obligation to book a full session, you can decide whether hypnotherapy is right for you and if I am the right therapist for you. These free sessions are available at Serendipity in Honiton High Street or online via Skype or Zoom.