One minute you were standing at the gate, full of anticipation for your holiday, now you are sitting in your window seat on the plane – and suddenly the environment is blurred. Your heart races, you shake uncontrollably, hyperventilate and can hardly breathe. Sheer panic is the only thing you can still perceive. You ask yourself: What is happening to me? Am I dying? No, you’re not dying. You’re having “just” a panic attack!
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What exactly is a panic attack?
Ultimately, it is a physical reaction to an existing or even imagined threat. “Most people get a panic attack at least once in their lives,” says psychotherapist Jan Ahrens from Essen. The good news: it feels life-threatening, but it is not.
Panic reactions are practically in your genes. Since time immemorial, they have been preparing the human body in alarm situations at lightning speed to flee or fight a danger, for example a predator. To do this, the body provides the stress hormone adrenaline, constricts the blood vessels and causes blood pressure and muscle tension to rise.
Usually a panic attack lasts only a few minutes, but those affected can seem like half an eternity. One thing is certain: a panic attack does not last and will stop again. It becomes problematic if a fear of fear develops afterwards, so that you no longer dare to leave the house in anticipation. Or you avoid cars because you once had a seizure in a car. It’s a vicious circle that you find difficult to escape. In this case you should seek help from a psychologist.
But sometimes it helps a little bit to first read about panic attacks and try out the tips and exercises from books. Here are three guides:
Sudden anxiety states can feel as if you are losing control of your own body. © Fure / Shutterstock.com
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
Since your body thinks that it is in a deadly situation, a shock reaction occurs and only the main organs – lungs, brain and heart – are supplied with blood. As a result, these symptoms can occur suddenly and without warning:
- Strong tremor
- Shortness of breath
- Weld eruption
- Fear of death
- pale and cold skin
Why am I having panic attacks?
It is clear that today, as a rule, no wild animals trigger your flight instinct. “Often it is not the situation itself that frightens you, but the thoughts you have,” explains Ahrens. If, for example, you suffer a panic attack as a passenger in an airplane, this is not triggered by the flight itself, but rather by a feeling of powerlessness at dizzying heights.
“People are often affected who do not feel strong enough in certain situations”, says Ahrens. “Unconsciously, they do not want to face a task, they feel completely helpless”, says Ahrens. The cause is often a lack of trust in themselves. People who suffer panic attacks usually find it difficult to deal with crisis situations and stress.
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What can I do myself in case of a panic attack?
The most important thing is to be aware that you are not really in danger. Even if your heart is racing, your life is not at stake. Remember that this is a panic attack, that only your own thoughts and fears are causing these physical symptoms. It also helps to remember that a panic attack does not last forever, but usually reaches its peak after 10 minutes.
Try to leave the situation in which the panic started for the moment and find a place to rest. If this is not possible, such as in an airplane, distract yourself in other ways.
Breathing is a very important aid. By breathing in and out slowly into and out of the lower abdomen, breathing is better regulated and the heartbeat normalizes. It can also be helpful to look around and name objects in the environment to distract yourself and escape the negative thought processes.
It can also help to approach trustworthy people in your environment about your situation and get help. Fortunately, the phenomenon of a panic attack is relatively well known these days, so you don’t have to be afraid of reaping uncomprehending looks.
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How do I react when others have a panic attack?
Suppose you are back on the plane, but now your seat neighbor is suddenly having a panic attack. What to do? “You should definitely try to calm the person affected. Talk to him/her well and give him/her a feeling of security and trust. Small touches on the shoulder or regular breathing exercises together can often help to calm the affected person,” says Ahrens.
How can I prevent a panic attack?
If you suffer more often from panic attacks, it is important to talk about it with friends and family and to accept it. Denial cannot prevent certain fears from returning. You should also try to confront your fears, i.e. do not avoid the situations that frighten you, but approach them in a targeted manner, preferably in a controlled environment, in order to overcome your fear.
It can also help to reduce stress in everyday life, learn yoga or relaxation exercises to feel better equipped for everyday life.
Psychologists can help you to face your fears. © Fizkes / Shutterstock.com How to find your inner balance with Yoga
When should I go to the doctor for panic attacks?
If your panic attacks occur more frequently and/or at regular intervals, you should consult a doctor or psychologist. In the case of constantly recurring attacks, experts speak of a panic disorder, which is in need of treatment in any case. However, it is better to seek treatment early on. Because you do not want to get into the cycle of fear and avoidance mentioned above. The prospects with the professional are good: in more than three-quarters of all cases a therapy is successful.
Psychologists* can use therapies such as hypnosis, confrontation therapy or behavioural therapy to try to analyse your panic attacks and overcome your fears with an individual concept. “If this does not work either, there are still possibilities to treat the fear with medication”, says Ahrens.
Panic attacks should be taken seriously. If you notice that fear suddenly arises in you and you lose control, then remember: You will not die from a panic attack! Try to calm yourself down with breathing exercises and relaxation techniques. And in the future, face your fears, if necessary with professional help.