Panic Attacks: What they are and how to deal with anxiety

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense physical and psychological symptoms which overwhelm the body. These symptoms can include fear, anxiety, sweating, nausea, shaking and heart palpitations.

We asked Katie Light, holistic health expert and founder of The Light Technique, for her expert opinion on what causes panic attacks and how to treat them.

GTG: What causes a panic attack?

KL: Panic attacks can be brought on by a number of things and are often linked to what is happening in a person’s life at that time. Quite often, they occur when emotions and stressful situations are suppressed for long periods of time, allowing problems to build up and eventually leading to a rush of intense emotions when they are finally released. The trigger can vary, but is often a shock or trauma (for example a bereavement) which the client does not have the tools to deal with.

GTG: How would you treat a panic attack?

Breath work

KL: If you are suffering from panic attacks, a combination of breath work and NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) can be a very effective treatment option. Breath work involves learning to breathe from the stomach rather than the chest, a technique which helps the mind and body to relax, and is a quick and simple exercise you can carry out on your own when you feel a panic attack coming on.

NLP and Reiki

KL: When treating clients who suffer from panic attacks, NLP aims to get them to focus on things which will help them to feel better rather than the negative associations of panic. Imagining colours, images or sounds will be encouraged to help the client move towards a calm and peaceful state of mind and body.

Reiki (a healing technique whereby the therapist channels energy into the client through touch), is also used to balance the body’s energy and create a state of equilibrium. During a reiki session, the therapist will also talk about the calming colours and images the client should focus on when they feel themselves panicking in order to better embed them into the subconscious. When the client leaves the session, they should be able to imagine these images at home and experience the associated feeling of calm quite easily. For some clients, the therapist may actually record the session, so that the client can go home and play the tape when they feel themselves falling into a panic. This should help the patient to focus on the positive and re-programme their body and mind back to the relaxed state reached in the session.

When a client first starts experiencing panic attacks, they will often be seen by the therapist for three or four sessions in quick succession, with each session lasting between one and a half to two hours. Once the client has a series of techniques to use at home, they tend to visit the therapist less frequently, with follow up sessions intended to find out how the client is feeling recommended every four to six weeks.

Other treatment options…

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

Another treatment option for a person suffering from panic attacks is cognitive behavioural therapy, a psychological therapy that has been shown to be very effective in treating panic disorders. Across a number of sessions, the therapist will discuss how you react and what you think about when you experience a panic attack. Once you identify any negative thoughts, your therapist will help you to replace these with more realistic ones as well as teaching you ways in which you can change your behaviour so that you can react more calmly to panic situations in future. Like with reiki and NLP, this may also involve you learning breathing techniques.

Antidepressants

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are a kind of antidepressant used to increase levels of serotonin (the neurotransmitter responsible for mood) in the brain. They are often recommended for treating panic disorders such as panic attacks, but can have a number of unpleasant side effects including nausea, headaches, loss of appetite and insomnia. If successful, they will usually start to work after a few days and should cause feelings of anxiety or panic to return to a more normal level. Even if you respond well to such medication however, it is likely that you will have to take a SSRI for at least six to 12 months.

Referral

If none of the above options work for you, you may be referred to a mental health specialist. Depending on your situation, this will either be a psychiatrist (a trained medical doctor who is able to prescribe medication) or a clinical psychologist (a professional trained in the scientific study of human behaviour and mental processes who will help you find ways of effectively managing your panic attacks).

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