Would you know a panic attack if it is happening right in front of you?
Panic attacks are very common – according to a 2008 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 40% of Australians will experience a panic attack at some point in their lives.
Knowing this, it’s hard to understand why there’s still a stigma around the topic.
For people who do not suffer from mental health conditions, a panic attack can come out of the blue.
If you’re lucky enough to have avoided panic attacks yourself, chances are you’ll encounter a person who’s having one at some point – especially if you work in health care. When it happens, you need to know what to do.
Symptoms of a panic attack
While symptoms of a panic attack vary from person to person, you’re probably familiar with the most common presentation – a sudden intense feeling of fear, increased heart rate and sweating.
However, did you know that panic attacks can last up to an hour? And that some people don’t have the stereotypical symptom of fear?
Panic attacks are not always easy to recognise. Here’s a quick refresher on what to look out for:
- A feeling of fear or intense discomfort
- Palpitations or racing heart
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain
- Feeling detached from yourself or like things aren’t real
- Fear that you’re losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
- Pins and needles
- Chills or hot flushes
Symptoms start suddenly and peak in around 10 minutes. The attack can last from a few minutes to an hour.
Who gets panic attacks?
Anyone can get a panic attack at any point in their lives. However, they are twice as common in women as men and some people have panic attacks as part of a mental health condition such as a phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or substance addiction.
An isolated panic attack is not a mental illness, although a small number of people who have repeated panic attacks may go on to be diagnosed with panic disorder.
Your reaction counts
When someone has a panic attack for the first time, it can be a traumatic experience. Even if a person has had one before, they may feel terrified and embarrassed. If you happen to be close by, you should be supportive and non-judgemental.
All too often, people with panic attacks or anxiety disorders are dismissed, told to “get over it” and that it’s “all in your head”. This is not only hurtful but can cause damage down the line.
People who get regular panic attacks may change their behaviour to avoid things which might trigger an attack or where they feel they won’t be able to get help. They may constantly worry about having another attack, seek unnecessary medical treatment or develop agoraphobia – a fear of leaving familiar places. This can stop a person living their life to the fullest.
How to help someone having a panic attack
If you encounter someone having a panic attack, here are some things you can do to help:
- Stay with them, do not leave them on their own.
- Be calm and reassuring. Now is not the time to arrange follow up treatment, even though it may be necessary.
- Get them to take slow, deep breaths or breathe into a bag. This increases the concentration of carbon dioxide in their blood and can relieve symptoms.
When a person suspects they’ve had a panic attack, they’ll need to see a doctor to get a definitive diagnosis and to rule out serious conditions with similar symptoms such as heart attack, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, hyperthyroidism or asthma.
First-line treatment for panic attacks is cognitive behavioural therapy. When this is not effective, doctors may use medication.
It’s important that the person understands what a panic attack is, and if possible, healthcare professionals should explain to family and friends how to support their loved one if it happens.