by Jackie Edwards
May is Mental Health Awareness month. In honor of that fact, KRL will have several mental health related articles in May–check back every week for the latest articles. Jackie Edwards is a freelance writer and editor who has suffered from crippling panic attacks and accompanying bouts of depression for many years. In this article she shares what she has learned from her own experiences and research.
Learn more about Mental Health Month on the Mental Health America and NAMI websites.
Over 4.3 million people in California need mental health services, with just under 40,000 of those based in the San Joaquin Valley. Anxiety disorders play a big part in this statistic, with panic attacks being a common issue.
Everyone is familiar with a sense of panic, whether it be from thinking you’ve lost your wallet to the tension you feel from a scene in a horror movie. Panic is, to a degree, fundamental to our ability to survive. However, if panic is too extreme, it can result in a panic attack, which is serious and incredibly frightening for the person going through it.
What are panic attacks and what triggers them?
A panic attack is an intense sense of fear that leaves the sufferer utterly overwhelmed and terrified. The person might experience chest pains, trembling, heart palpitations, and sweating, among other things. Attacks can last anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 minutes. They are quite common, affecting about 18% of American adults, mostly ages 18-24.
Sometimes, panic attacks can happen without an obvious cause. However, they are usually triggered by something that brings you back to a traumatic moment from your past. This may be something seemingly trivial to others, such as the sound of a church bell, the smell of beef stew, or being in a particular place: anything that brings you back to that memory and fills you with unbearable fear.
Certain factors are known to put people at more risk of panic attacks than others. These include:
1. Being female;
2. A family history of panic attacks or mental health problems;
3. Smoking and excessive caffeine intake;
4. Going through stressful and/or traumatic experiences.
How can panic attacks be treated?
Panic attacks are terrifying to experience, but are fortunately treatable. Medications are available, but should only be taken on a short-term basis and alongside non-medical treatment. The latter includes hypnotherapy, which incorporates techniques such as ‘havening’ to switch off the ‘panic response’ in the brain that triggers an attack. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also effective at treating panic attacks, enabling sufferers to understand the underlying causes of their attacks and so reduce the likelihood of recurrences.
How might panic attacks be prevented?
The chances of a panic attack can be reduced by cutting out stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and recreational drugs. Yoga and meditation teach your mind to relax, and regularly exercising not only helps you get into good physical shape, but also helps you feel positive. It is particularly important to have a strong network of supportive people around you, whether that be family, friends, or your spiritual advisor. Alternatively, you could try visiting a local anxiety support group or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, then an online support group could work well for you.