When something frightens us or makes us anxious, we react to it. For most people this is a measured response, for others this response is greatly exaggerated. A simple way to explain a panic attack is a massive over-reaction which feels completely out of our control. Something which in itself, can cause someone to feel even more scared, adding to the problem.

Typically, someone who is having a panic attack will have one or more of the following symptoms: Uncontrollable shaking, fast breathing, fast heartbeat - feeling like they may be having a heart attack and or chest pains, crying, sweating profusely, unable to move, feeling faint. These symptoms are likely to be most intense at around 10 minutes into the episode. Some people may have several panic attacks in a short period of time.

Panic attacks are usually brought on by stress and anxiety. For some they can be an extreme reaction to a one-off event, such as witnessing an accident. For others they may become a frequent reaction to any number of triggers which can vary widely from person to person. Things such as unusual social situations, having to see the boss, being in a crowded place, going over bridges, getting in a lift, taking some kind of exam or test. For others it may be when they are reminded of some earlier trauma in their life.

An obvious preventative measure would be to identify what the triggers are, this is not always obvious. If you are able to identify a trigger, then avoiding it would be the answer. However, this may be a lot easier said than done, and another way would be to learn how to control one’s reactions to these triggers so that your reaction doesn’t escalate to a full-blown panic attack.

There are some well-tried and tested things which can be very helpful. A frequent recommendation is to control the breathing. Breathe in deeply, hold it, exhale slowly and count as a further distraction method.

There are several other methods which are known as ‘grounding techniques’ This is where a person can distract themselves from the thoughts during a panic attack by re-familiarising themselves with their current surroundings, by concentrating on and identifying:

* Five things they can see;

* Four things they can hear;

* Three things they can touch;

* Two things they can smell;

* One thing they can taste.

The numbers are less important than the use of all the senses.

If the current surroundings are part of the problem, then just focusing on thinking of another calmer place can be beneficial.

The physical symptoms of a panic attack are very real and can be incredibly frightening. If you witness someone having a panic attack, you need to stay calm. In order to help them, it is a good idea to ask the person if they have ever experienced something like this before. If they haven’t, then it is a good idea to call an ambulance immediately. A panic attack can appear the same as a heart attack or an asthma attack. If the person has experienced this type of thing previously, then it is a good idea to ask them what helped them on previous occasions. By staying as calm as possible, you will be helping the person to calm down. There is always the risk that someone having a panic attack may collapse, or fall over, helping them to sit down on a bench or chair will help eliminate the risk of injury. If in any doubt at all, then it is always best to call for an ambulance.

Staying with the person and reassuring them, will help to keep them safe until professional help arrives. Sitting with them, and listening to them can really make a difference, and can help the person to become settled more quickly.

Panic attacks can be very disrupting. Your GP has expertise in such matters and should be your first port of call if you are affected by them.

If you run any kind of local support group to help people with the mental health and well-being, then please get in touch. The more people talk about things which affect how they think and feel, the more they can help themselves and each other.

You can reach me directly by email: [email protected]

Please remember if you are in any kind of mental health crisis: Go to your GP or A&E or call The Samaritans on 116 123

* Martin Furber is a mental health and well-being professional, and a qualified therapist in various fields.

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