There’s no need to succumb to your fears. You can overcome them by following these simple suggestions or seeking professional help

Nidhi woke up with a start from sleep confused, as several negative thoughts crossed her mind. She felt giddy and could not go back to sleep.

“I felt unsteady and that I would fall down at any moment; I was drenched in sweat.”

“All of a sudden, I felt a tremendous wave of mindless fear. My heart was pounding. It resonated in my ears. My chest began to pain and breathing was an effort. I thought I was going to die.”

“I have that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach and am terrified that I’m going to suffer another panic attack, or some terrible thing is going to happen and I dread stepping out of my house.”

These are but a few people describing their experience of a panic attack. In reality, many people frequently experience panic and live their lives, avoiding situations that frighten them.

To put it simply, a panic attack is the result of adrenaline surging into the bloodstream. A message of fear sends a signal to the adrenal glands that there is an emergency. They, in turn, release adrenaline that gives the body a heightened ability to respond to emergencies. This emergency response causes physical symptoms many misinterpret.

What are these symptoms?

Some symptoms of panic attacks include palpitation, rapid heart rate, profuse sweating, chest pain or discomfort (very often the affected person feels he is in for a heart attack, as it mimics every symptom of it), trembling and shaking, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing (mimicking asthmatic attacks), abdominal distress, dizziness and light-headedness, derealisation (feeling detached from oneself), fear of losing control of oneself, of dying or being attacked, numbness or a tingling sensation, loss of bladder control and alternating chills and hot flushes.

Whatever the symptom, a panic attack is traumatising to the victim. Sometimes, the symptoms may mimic the genuine ones, but their impact is quite realistic and debilitating.

One may have only one or two panic attacks in a lifetime. But, if one has had several attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another, due to the physical and emotional impact the attack may have had, it may be a chronic condition called panic disorder.

Panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or stress, but they're now recognised as a real medical condition. A person undergoing a panic attack very often feels he/she is having a heart attack. Unexpected panic attacks can result in a persistent fear of repeated attacks.

Panic disorders are different from panic attacks in the sense that they are resultant from several panic attacks. These definitely need medical help.

The emotional status of the person is very important when it comes to how seriously the nature and intensity of the panic disorder affects him.

People with depression may also be more inclined to experience one or more panic attacks due to their vulnerable state of mind, and may not be able to define the symptoms properly.

If the panic attacks are not dealt with appropriately, the person might think he/she is becoming mentally unsound and turn paranoid. This, in turn, will create more anxiety, triggering panic attacks.

Panic disorder may also occur with agoraphobia. This means the person is anxious about being in places or situations from which escape might be difficult or in which help may not be available in the event of a panic attack.

Once people have a panic attack, they may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about the situations they are in during the attacks and begin to avoid them. That, in turn, may reach a point where the mere idea of doing things that preceded the first panic attack triggers terror; so, a person with panic disorder is, at times, unable to even drive or step out of the house.

The victim associates a particular place or event with the previous attacks, and fears exposure to the same place or event. As the number of such events and places of their occurrence increase, the victim finds it difficult to move out of a confined ‘secure place’ within the house.

The symptoms of panic disorder in adolescents are almost similar to what adults experience. However, younger children are less likely to display symptoms that involve ways of thinking (cognitive symptoms). For example, attacks in children may result in the child's grades declining, decreased school attendance, etc.

Combating the problem

The onset of a panic attack can be recognised by the victim as they have experienced it before.

As soon as you feel the onset of an attack, relax. Take a deep breath and breathe out slowly.

Stop negative thinking. Avoid thinking that you are having a heart attack or that you are going to fall, or faint.

Use coping statements and auto suggestion:

Convince yourself that you are not having a heart attack and that you are only in the grip of fear. Tell yourself ‘this is not a heart attack, I am only being held captive by my fear.

Accept your feelings. Understand and accept that it is not abnormal to have feelings of fear. And, develop the ability to control your reaction to these feelings.

Panic attack? Deal with it in stages

1. Recognise the symptoms

2. The fear associated with it

3. The reaction to the fear

4. Experiencing the attack itself

5. The impact of the attack

However, when the symptoms are very severe and frequent; it is best to seek professional help.