Understanding panic attacks

NO WARNING: Panic attacks can come out of seemingly nowhere and can feel overwhelming
Picture: PIXABAY

Last week, the GO! & Express discussed the issue of burnout in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month. For this week’s instalment, we will be looking at panic attacks, what they are and how to handle them.

According to SA Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) founder Zane Wilson, a panic attack can be described as a “sudden surge of overwhelming fear that comes without warning and without any obvious reason”.

Wilson said that attacks can be so bad that they can prevent a person from doing even simple things like going to the shops, going to work or just going out in public in general.

Masithethe Counselling Services director Jackie Orsmond said that some common signs of a panic attack include:

  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Chills or hot flushes
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Confusion
  • Numbness
  • Crying uncontrollably
  • Hyper vigilance

“At first, the panic attack appears to come out of nowhere. It can happen while doing a day-to-day activity such as riding in a taxi, sitting at work, having lunch or even while shopping,” she said.

“It usually lasts a few minutes, but to the person it may feel much longer.

“The symptoms do subside as time goes on and with the right help, can disappear entirely.”

Orsmond said that panic attacks may occur during periods under immense stress or after a traumatic event.

She also said that panic attacks could be caused by different kinds of anxiety disorders.

The first one she names is social anxiety disorder, which she defines as “a fear of being watched or judged by others, extreme self-consciousness in social situations [and] fear that anxiety symptoms will be humiliating or offend others”.

The symptoms do subside as time goes on and with the right help, can disappear entirely.

“Social situations are avoided or tolerated with intense fear and anxiety,” Orsmond said.

Panic attacks are also a part of another anxiety disorder called panic disorder.

“[This is] a recurrent unexpected panic attack in combination with apprehension over having another attack or worrying about the consequences of an attack, or changes in behaviour or activities to avoid another panic attack,” said Orsmond.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the UK said that people with panic disorder experience frequent and repeated panic attacks, some of which can last for several minutes.

“A person with panic disorder may become discouraged and feel ashamed because he or she cannot carry out normal routines like going to school or work, going to the grocery store, or driving,” NIMH says on their website.

Finally, panic attacks may be a symptom of generalised anxiety disorder which, according to Orsmond, is characterised by an “excessive anxiety or worry over life’s challenges (money, work, family, school etc.), difficulty in controlling the worry, vigilance, muscle tension, restlessness, edginess and difficulty concentrating”.

If you or someone you know is experiencing panic attacks, Orsmond suggests a number of ways to handle the situation.

It’s a good idea, said Orsmond, to read up on panic attacks and get better informed on the matter. There’s plenty of information online from reliable sources such as the previously quoted NIMH and SADAG.

You can also seek counselling, either through a hospital, private therapist or organisation such as Masithethe. This can not only help you discover coping mechanisms to help you during such attacks, but can also help you discover the root causes.


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