Having a panic attack can feel terrifying, as though you’re losing your grip on who you are and the world around you. The feelings of panic, such as breathlessness and intense fear or dread, can descend upon you suddenly from nowhere. In the time they take to subside, they can sometimes leave you believing that you won’t be able to survive the panic attack.
The symptoms of a panic attack are defined in the DSM-5, the manual that psychiatrists use to diagnose mental health disorders. Panic attacks involve an abrupt surge of intense fear or physical discomfort which reach a peak within a few minutes.
For a panic attack to be diagnosed, you need to experience four or more of the following symptoms:
- Palpitations, pounding heart or rapid heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath or smothering sensations
- Chest pain (sometimes so bad that it feels like a heart attack)
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed or faint
- Feeling of choking
- Numbness or tingling
- Chills or hot flushes
- Nausea or abdominal pains
- Feeling detached
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of dying
They are known to be ‘limited symptom’ attacks if fewer than four of the above are present.
Panic attacks can happen even when there is no actual danger present. The DSM-5 differentiates between two types of panic attack: expected and unexpected.
Expected panic attacks can happen when exposed to a specific fear. For example, someone who hates enclosed spaces may have a panic attack when stuck in a lift. Someone who hates flying may have a panic attack when boarding an aircraft.
Unexpected panic attacks can happen suddenly with no apparent trigger or warning that the attack is about to happen. It is the unexpected nature of panic attacks that could signify a panic disorder.
Diagnosing panic disorder
Panic attacks can also accompany conditions such as anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance-related disorders. The DSM-5 criteria that define a panic disorder (which is a type of anxiety disorder) include:
- The experience of recurring, unexpected panic attacks in a person’s lifetime.
- At least one of these attacks has been followed by a one-month period where the person continually fears having additional attacks or their implications (for example, having a heart attack).
- And/or the person has changed his or her behaviour in a maladaptive way – for example, by avoiding situations that may provoke panic sensations.
- The person may go on to experience varying frequencies and intensities of expected and unexpected panic attacks.
- The symptoms must not be attributable to substance-related effects, other medical conditions or other psychiatric disorders (for example, specific phobias, or OCD).
If you are concerned that you may have a panic disorder, then the first step is to see your GP. A panic disorder, or any other psychiatric disorder, can only be diagnosed by a psychiatrist.
If you’re having a panic attack…
- Breathe deeply through your belly. Breathe in for a count of 7 through the nose, and out of a count of 11 through the mouth. Gradually your heart rate will calm down.
- Tell yourself that this will pass. Ride out the feelings, knowing that there is no real danger present. It’s just your body’s alarm system going off.
- Take yourself to a ‘happy place’ in your head. Don’t let fearful thinking take over. Imagine you’re in a safe, reassuring place and allow the panic attack to wear itself out.
If you’re suffering from occasional panic attacks and believe you could benefit from professional support for your anxiety symptoms, then get in touch with us. We have appointments available seven days a week at our centres in Clapham and Tooting. Call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected]