Around one in ten people experience occasional panic attacks but most people learn to deal with them without needing specific panic attack treatments. Unfortunately, for around one in 50 people, panic attacks are a regular and debilitating part of their lives. If this is something you are going through at the moment, you may have a panic disorder and it could be reassuring to find out more about the different panic attack treatments available. These include self-help panic attack treatments, medication and psychological therapy and counselling.

This article on panic attack treatments is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.

What is this?

A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, when there is no actual reason to feel that way. These emotions are usually coupled with a range of physical symptoms such as a rapid, thumping heartbeat, nausea, sweating and shaking. You may also experience hot flushes, chills, breathlessness, dizziness and chest pains.

Self-help treatment

Before turning to medication or formal psychological panic attack treatments, it is well worth trying self-help techniques to see if you can learn to deal with your panic attacks yourself.

The cinema cliché of a panicking person breathing into a paper bag is not without scientific merit. Over-breathing during a panic attack can upset the body chemistry, making the symptoms feel worse and creating a vicious circle. Re-breathing your exhaled carbon dioxide is a very effective panic attack treatment as this helps rebalance your body chemistry.

Other self-help panic attack treatments include:

  • Positive thinking – reminding yourself that you are not actually in physical danger and that the symptoms are just a sign of panic.
  • Challenging your fear – trying to identify your fear and challenging its validity can help reduce its power over you.
  • Deep breathing – slow deep breathing not only helps keep the body chemistry in balance, but also gives you something else to focus on.
  • Positive visualisations – taking your mind to a place where you feel safe, relaxed and peaceful is a panic attack treatment that many people find useful.

Medical treatment

There are several different types of medication that are prescribed for panic attacks. Since each individual reacts differently, your GP may need to experiment with different panic attack treatments before they find the right one for you.

Antidepressants are often used in panic attack treatment as they can alter the brain chemistry. For example, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are antidepressants that increase your positive feelings by maintaining a higher than normal level of the brain chemical serotonin. If SSRI panic attack treatments do not work, you may be moved on to tricyclic antidepressants. These work in a similar way, but also affect noradrenaline levels.

Medical panic attack treatments may take up to four weeks to begin to work, and during this time your symptoms may actually get worse. However, it is worth persevering with these panic attack treatments, and your GP will arrange regular appointments to monitor your progress. Most people will need to take their antidepressant panic attack treatment for 6-12 months before slowly weaning themselves off the medication. Even if you do not feel that they are working, you should never stop taking your panic attack treatment without first consulting your GP.

People who experience severe physical symptoms during panic attacks, such as shortness of breath or heart palpitations may be prescribed beta blockers as a panic attack treatment. These drugs slow the heart rate and reduce the effect of adrenaline on the heart during stressful situations.

Psychological treatment

The alternative approach to panic attack treatment is psychological therapy. This can take many forms, such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

The aim of counselling is to identify the triggers for panic attacks and try to discover the root cause. This could be a childhood influence or a more recent trauma. Sometimes, simply talking about the current stresses in your life with a counsellor can help to reduce their power to cause panic attacks.

By contrast, CBT and NLP are both ‘content free’ panic attack treatments. They do not focus on the reason for the attack, but on your thoughts and behaviours when the attack happens. These panic attack treatments aim to help you to identify the negative thought processes and behaviours that you go through during a panic attack, and suggest new, more positive thoughts and actions to replace them. For many people, simply being able to step out of the moment and see the negative way that they are thinking is enough to take away the panic attack’s power over them.

Avoiding the need for treatment

You can reduce the incidence of panic attacks by making some simple, basic changes to your lifestyle to make yourself healthier, better nourished and cut out some of the known contributing factors. These changes include:

  • Regular exercise – to help you release tension and produce more ‘good feeling’ chemicals such as serotonin.
  • Healthy eating – eating regular meals and following a balanced diet to help keep blood sugar levels stable.
  • Learning to relax – relaxation techniques such as yoga, massage and aromatherapy are one of the most helpful panic attack treatments that have absolutely no side effects.
  • Avoid toxins – nicotine, alcohol and caffeine all contribute to panic attacks and should be reduced or avoided altogether.

A support network is great treatment

If you are having regular panic attacks, this can be very isolating. Many people avoid situations and circumstances that might be stressful and can become agoraphobic – frightened of leaving the safety of their home. Having an understanding partner, family and friends can all help reduce the feeling that you are ‘going it alone’ and make all types of panic attack treatments easier to stick to.

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