How to manage anxiety and panic attacks

In the UK, anxiety disorders affect around one in ten people.  Here we look at ways to recognise symptoms and explore preventative treatments.

“When we are faced with a difficult situation or a perceived threat, our body’s typical reaction is one of fear or anxiety.  This is perfectly normal and helps us to recognise the danger and avoid it.  Our body experiences a boost of energy to deal with the problem”, explains David Baldwin, Professor of Psychiatry at Southampton University.

“Unfortunately in some cases the anxiety does not go away or is overly reactive and this can become a very genuine problem.”

Anxiety and depression – what’s the difference?

The symptoms of depression and anxiety are somewhat different.  With depression you’ll have low mood, little energy or interest in anything, however, with anxiety you’ll feel agitated, your energy will be heightened and you will be quite able to maintain your interest.

Those who have depression tend to be critical of themselves and their past actions whereas those who are anxious tend to worry about what is to come.

Those who suffer anxiety, however, may not want to participate in the things they were doing previously and so may withdraw from society.  This may then lead to them becoming depressed.

Professor Baldwin tells us “if anxiety starts to interfere with your day to day life then it has become a problem.”

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks tend to occur for no apparent reason.  All of us have feelings of panic and anxiety in threatening, dangerous or stressful situations but people who suffer from panic attacks generally have these feelings just out of the blue.

A panic attack can last around half an hour with symptoms at their peak after approximately 10 minutes.  Professor Baldwin explains that panic attacks may feel very frightening but are not dangerous.

Are panic attacks common?

Professor Baldwin tells us that panic attacks are surprisingly common.  “At some point in their lives one in 10 people will have a panic attack.  One in 20 will have further attacks and one in 50 will suffer from panic disorder (these are recurring, unexpected panic attacks).  Typically symptoms will have started by the age of 20.”

Panic attacks – symptoms

Having a panic attack is often described as feeling like a loss of control.  The person will be feeling hugely worried, disturbed and scared and even frightened that they are going to die.

Physically the body will be producing adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone) which may result in:

  • palpitations of the heart
  • intense shaking and sweating
  • loss of breath
  • fast breathing
  • a dry mouth or tingling around the mouth and in the fingers

Could it be a heart attack?

“Even though the symptoms for a panic attack and a heart attack are different around a quarter of those attending A & E who believe they are suffering a heart attack will, in fact, be having a panic attack,” says Professor Baldwin.

“With a heart attack there is intense central chest pain (typically on the left and also in the arm), and symptoms will worsen.  Conversely, with a panic attack, there is no pain and symptoms usually get better after half an hour.”

What can trigger anxiety and panic attacks?

It is not certain what definitely causes attacks but some triggers could be:

  • Life events – stressful events such as losing a loved one, divorce, money worries, losing your job, sitting exams can make us anxious but usually, this anxiety abates when the problem is resolved. However, more traumatic events such as a fire, car crash, or an assault may leave us feeling anxious for a long time (post-traumatic stress disorder).
  • Caffeine – consuming too much caffeine can make you anxious
  • Illegal medication – taking amphetamines, LSE or ecstasy can result in anxiety
  • Simply the way we are made – a propensity to overly worry may be inherited.

Is there any treatment available?

If you have recurrent panic attacks then your GP has a few treatments they can prescribe:

  • Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help change the way you think and act and so reduce feelings of anxiety and panic. CBT concentrates on problems that are in your life now rather than things that may have happened in the past.
  • CBT techniques can be used as Exposure Therapy if you know your anxiety is triggered by a specific fear of something such as an enclosed space or dogs, etc. This technique uses short bursts of exposure to your particular fear.
  • Medication such as anti-depressants or beta blockers.

“Even though anxiety is not depression, anti-depressants can be prescribed,” explains Professor Baldwin, “and treatment is effective in approximately 65% of patients.” Excessive shaking can be controlled through taking beta blockers.

Professor Baldwin tells us that over 85% of patients respond positively if anti-depressants are combined with psychological therapies.

Ways of helping yourself

  • Try talking to someone: Speaking with people who have the same experiences can be of enormous benefit.
  • Try a support group:  Anxiety UK is a charity that can help. It can provide online support and runs a helpline (08444 775 774).
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