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What is a Panic Attack?

Everyone experiences stress and anxiety, it is a part of life and learning to manage it is the key. When we are stressed, anxious and under pressure our brain triggers the release of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol. These chemicals produce physical symptoms including palpitations, rapid breathing, nausea and diarrhoea. These physical feelings are the FIGHT/FLIGHT response and would serve a purpose if we needed to run away or fight a predator. At worst we may feel we are about to die.

Why do they occur?

If we breathe more quickly and our heart beats more rapidly we can carry more oxygen in the blood supply to our limbs so that we are able to run faster, if we vomit or have diarrhea and we empty our stomach and our bowels we will be lighter and can move more quickly.

The trouble is sometimes these physical symptoms occur without any warning and we are unaware of the reasons why and the feeling can be terrifying, it is however worth remembering that the reaction is a normal bodily one just happening without an appropriate trigger.

When we experience these unpleasant feelings we become fearful and may avoid the places or the situations where the fight/flight response occurs, this unfortunately reinforces and exacerbates the fear. Although it may not seem like it a panic attack will pass without us being physically harmed.

What happens in the body?

Breathing is the key to overcoming stress and anxiety and an ensuing panic attack. When we are fearful we tend to either hold our breath or take very shallow breaths using only the top of our lungs, this can result in insufficient oxygen entering our blood stream. We may raise our shoulders and hold them very tightly increasing the tension in the body which also affects our available oxygen supply. If we breathe too fast we exhale too much carbon dioxide which can cause faintness, numbness and tingling sensations. If our breathing is chronically too shallow and too rapid we may lose magnesium through our kidneys contributing to a feeling of tiredness and of being generally unwell.

How to breathe

Start by making yourself as comfortable as possible in the circumstances you find yourself, then breathe in to a count of 7 and out to a count of 11. Relax your shoulders by dropping them down and think about filling all of your lungs with air, allowing your chest and stomach to expand outwards. If you are much stressed this count may at first be too long, if it feels too difficult begin by using a lower number, just make sure that the out breath is longer than the in breath. When you exhale do not force the air out rather let it come out naturally, as you release your diaphragm it will move back up pushing the air out. As you continue to breath and become more relaxed extend the count. Imagine that you are breathing with your whole body and if there are any parts of your body that are tense or painful breath into them in particular.

Our bodies have what is called an autonomic nervous system which is divided into two parts, the sympathetic and para sympathetic systems. This nervous system regulates how we feel and how our muscles tighten and relax. Anxious breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and increases the release of adrenaline worsening the anxiety. Abdominal breathing however stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve, this conveys sensory information between the brain and the organs of the body slowing the pulse and reducing anxiety levels. Counting your breaths works by simply focusing your mind away from your anxiety.
Remember that just as anxiety, stress and panic attacks emanate from within our body we can learn to manage them from within our body too.