Panic attacks are episodes of sudden anxiety, intense fear or a feeling of acute apprehension. They are usually brief and resolve without the need of any treatment within a quarter of an hour. Although harmless, panic attacks can give rise to a loss of confidence, especially if the sufferer finds attacks difficult to control or manage.
Panic attacks are relatively common. It is said that 5% of people will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives. Other research suggests that up to 20% of adults are prone to panic attacks.
Although panic attacks can occur randomly without any obvious cause, they are most often associated with a trigger such as being under stress or when receiving bad news. People more prone to the condition are those with a tendency to anxiety, worry, low mood or depression.
Symptoms arise because of the body’s natural response to danger, known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. This normal response releases ‘stress’ chemicals into the blood stream and leads to a number of physical symptoms such as:
- Faster heartbeat (causing pounding of the heart)
- Shortness or quickening of breath (hyperventilation)
- Difficulty breathing (trouble taking a deep breath)
- Difficulty swallowing (a choking sensation)
- Muscle tension (giving rise to muscle cramps or spasms and pain in the neck or shoulders)
- Feeling faint and nauseated
- Sweating and flushing
- Dry mouth
- Tingling all over
To an onlooker, the most obvious symptom marking a panic attack is quick and shallow breathing. This is known as hyperventilation (excessive breathing) and can give rise to symptoms of tingling, starting from the ends of the fingers and toes, as well as muscle spasms or cramps (usually in the hands).
The reason for this is that breathing too quickly reduces the carbon dioxide levels in the blood, changing the acidity in the body which in turn, affects the way nerves and muscles function.
Panic attack symptoms are more pronounced than those of anxiety. However, the good news (if there is any) is that they are relatively brief, usually lasting just a few minutes.
If you feel that the symptoms of your panic attacks last longer than 15 minutes, you should seek the advice of a doctor.
Symptoms of panic attacks usually come as single or isolated episodes when under a bit more stress than usual or as a result of over-excitement. They do not tend to recur or return. In these circumstances, most people who suffer these episodes overcome the surprise of the symptoms quickly, without problems.
However, people who are more prone to stress and anxiety may suffer from recurrent or frequent panic attacks. These can worsen their feelings of anxiety, leading to:
- Loss of self-confidence or self-esteem
- Feeling irritable, impatient, short-tempered, restless or ‘on-edge’
- Becoming prone to being negative, worried, feeling low in mood or depressed
- Having a sense that ‘something is about to go wrong’
- Poor concentration, easily distracted, having a poor memory
- Feeling you can’t cope with normal everyday pressures
- Relying more on alcohol or cigarettes in order to cope with the symptoms
If you suffer from panic attacks and if the emotional symptoms described above are prolonged or worrisome, you should see your doctor.
- Caffeine intake
- Nicotine intake
- Alcohol intake
- Refined sugar intake
- Low blood sugar
- Dehydration (to mention the most common)
Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine will stimulate the release of adrenalin. If they are taking a substantial place in your daily life (which is particularly likely with caffeine), the adrenal glands can become very sensitive and jumpy.
If you take vast quantities of sugar, the body tries to deal with it by tucking it all away quickly into the tissues. Thus the amount of sugar in the bloodstream falls, and adrenalin is released to push blood sugar levels up again. Not only will you feel panicky but also your energy levels will fluctuate madly. If lots of this sugar is accounted for in your large intake of coffee, prepare for the negative effect to be doubled…
Blood sugar levels can also drop if you haven’t eaten within the last few hours. Women are especially guilty of this, going for long periods of time without eating and then wondering why they feel so nervy, jumping at shadows and craving sugary foods.
Dehydration is possibly one of the most common factors. If you are dehydrated you will experience a dry mouth and palpitations, and think that you are fearful.
The nutrients that your nervous system needs to make it more resistant to panic are magnesium and vitamin B.
Some herbs that help your nervous system to relax and stay calm are Oats, Passion Flower, and Valerian.
Avenaforce is made from Oat seed, containing nutrients that stabilise the nervous system and components that relax smooth muscle. It is a very gentle remedy that can be given to children as well as adults, and can be taken over a long period of time if necessary. It works well for ongoing stresses and won’t put you to sleep if you need to be alert. As with all the herbs discussed here, it is non-addictive, so even if you take it for a long time you will not become dependent on it.
Passion Flower is slightly stronger and is a good choice for averting panic attacks because it releases tension from the muscles as well as calming the nervous system. It often improves the quality of sleep, which has the beneficial knock-on effect of reducing the severity of fear symptoms.
Valerian can be taken long or short term by adults. It probably works the fastest of these herbs and will soothe both mind and muscles without creating drowsy side effects.
Take a deep breath, put down the coffee, pick up the herbs and forget the fear.
- Drink more water and less coffee and other caffeinated drinks
- Cut down nicotine and alcohol intake
- Eat regularly and try not to overdo the refined sugar (this is easier if you are eating every three to four hours, as your blood sugar levels don’t drop and thus you don’t get sugar cravings)
- Practice breathing deeply and slowly, or take a yoga or relaxation class that teaches you to control your breathing more effectively
- Instead of all those caffeinated drinks, turn to herbal teas such as chamomile, lemon balm and lemon verbena, which will calm your nerves whilst clearing your mind