Do you know the feeling? It comes out of the blue. You're minding your own business and suddenly you feel like you're going to die.
It happened to me just once, years ago. Lying in bed in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought I was going to expire and needed to get to a hospital. But there was nothing wrong with me. Several hours and a consultation with a very rude doctor later, I went home, still alive.
I'd had a panic attack.
I haven't had one since, but they seem rather common, these completely irrational yet totally overwhelming sensations that can jump you in any number of situations, usually when you least expect it.
Can we prevent them?
What the experts say
"A panic attack is when your deep brain is saying to your body that you have to flee or fight danger. It's associated with changes in blood flow, faster heart rate and breathing, and trembling. People often feel a tingling sensation in their hands or feet. Those who have panic disorder often change their behaviour to avoid attacks and try very hard to control symptoms. But trying to control a panic attack is like trying to control an allergic itch. What people really need to do is accept the attacks - let them come and go and not change their behaviour. Studies suggest that people who fear attacks are so tuned in to their bodies that they notice even normal fluctuations in heart rate or blood pressure, and this can bring on the attack they fear. Trying to control attacks makes the problem worse."
CHRISTINE PURDON, clinical psychologist, professor of psychology, University of Waterloo, Ontario
"For the physical sensation of panic attacks, medications like Ativan or clonazepam are beneficial as a first step, but homeopathy is the only modality that treats the underlying cause. After a homeopath takes an in-depth history, a remedy can be prescribed - for example, Lac Canninum for someone who was not listened to as a child and feels unworthy of success; Natrum Muriaticum for someone who holds things in and doesn't like to be consoled; Sepia for a person who is tough, disconnected from family, dislikes company but fears being alone."
SARA CHANA, homeopath and herbalist, New York City
"The essence of all symptoms stems from damage done to the psyche in the first three years of life, dating back to a possible sudden break in connection between child and primary caregiver. The disconnection needs to be healed in order to address panic symptoms. Borrowing from the wisdom of AA and other 12-step programs, individuals experiencing panic attacks can surrender to a higher power. The most powerful healing force is the power of unconditional love. Through meditation, you can bring a sense of connection and emotional containment to the chaos of panic. By slowly inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, you can begin to gain control of your breathing and engage the mind. This Connection Meditation may include images of being surrounded by a white light radiating unconditional love."
JUDY ROSENBERG, clinical psychologist, Los Angeles
"Prevention starts with a daily regimen of self-calming techniques: exercise, meditation, self-soothing skills that activate the sensory experience of the body. This could include smelling flowers, mindfully eating, noticing the breath or the colours of butterflies, etc. Working with the senses, one becomes more in tune and less fearful of one's own body. Engage the sensory experience of drinking water. Avoid beverages that create anxiety like colas and energy drinks, or eating sugary foods. Try self-affirmations that you are safe and will stop [the feared activity] if you need to. Observing and noticing thoughts that enter the mind and then letting them go is a mindful skill."
LISA BAHAR, clinical counsellor, Newport Beach, California
"If you want a cure, you have to take the energy out of the fear and know that no matter what happens, you can get through an attack. Panic disorder is about an autopilot belief system making you afraid of things that aren't scary. When you discover this, you will panic less or not at all. Embrace the truth that you will survive every panic attack, and you will get through it."
STEVEN SULTANOFF, psychology prof, Pepperdine University, Irvine, California
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