Everyone knows how it feels to be super-stressed with sky high anxiety. Whether it’s from losing a job, a personal crisis or just a really bad day, it’s somewhere we’ve all been. For some of us the mental turmoil triggers a physical reaction – a panic attack. Mental health awareness is getting better, but for some reason panic attacks are still portrayed by some as a ‘weakness’, something that you have to be ‘a bit sensitive’ to suffer.
That’s simply not true, says mental health expert Dr Mark Winwood, who tells RSNG that it isn’t unusual for someone who hasn’t suffered from anxiety before to have a panic attack, just because they are in an extremely stressful situation. One in ten of us will experience this, one in twenty will have recurrent attacks and one in fifty will suffer from panic disorder, with regular attacks. So, it pays to know what to do if you, or someone you know, has a panic attack. We put some FAQs to Dr Winwood to find out…
Do you have to be an anxiety sufferer to have a panic attack? This is one of the biggest mental health myths out there, says Dr Winwood: ‘It’s natural to feel anxious at times, but this does not necessarily indicate an anxiety disorder. Panic attacks are a common symptom of anxiety. However, it is not unusual for someone with no previous experience of anxiety to experience a panic attack sometime, due to being in an extremely stressful situation.’
The more you know your triggers, the easier it will be to talk yourself through an attack and keep calm
What’s the best thing to do if you have a panic attack? Forewarned is forearmed, and the more knowledge you have, the greater your ability will be to help yourself in an attack. Dr Winwood says there are eight things to remember: Know your triggers: the more you know your triggers and how your anxiety presents itself, the easier it will be to talk yourself through an attack and keep calm. Grounding techniques: focus on what’s around you, what it looks like, the smell, the texture.’
Breathe: by paying attention to your breathing, you can recognise when you’re not breathing correctly and try to correct it.’ Visualise a safe place: it sounds cliché, but think of your happy place – what does it look like, feel like, smell like? Try and visualise something relaxing, like a beach or calming water.’ Counting: focus your mind by doing something that requires concentration, such as mental maths.’ Leave the situation: if a situation is causing you anxiety, walk away if you can, even if it’s for a burst of fresh air.’ Ride it out: while it won’t feel pleasant at the time, remember that the situation is temporary and the panic attack will come to an end. It may not always be possible to leave the situation, so sometimes you may need to let it run its course.’ Talk to a friend: if you are with someone you know, continue chatting to them, or if not, call or text a friend.’
Don’t make assumptions about what the person needs – instead, ask them how they’re feeling
What’s the best thing to do if you are with a friend who has one? It’s common for someone witnessing a friend having a panic attack to feel helpless, but there are things you can do to support them without making things worse. ‘Stay with the person and keep calm,’ advises Dr Winwood.
‘Don’t make assumptions about what the person needs. Instead, ask them how they’re feeling, as everybody’s experience with panic attacks is different. Then, speak to the person in short, simple sentences. Help slow the person’s breathing, by breathing with them, or by counting their breaths, and remind them they are safe and they are experiencing anxiety.’
Is anxiety rising in the UK and the US? Anxiety is the leading cause of mental health issues among young Americans. In the UK, more than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some stage in their life.
According to Dr Winwood: ‘Symptoms of anxiety can also be present if an individual is experiencing depression. Symptoms of anxiety are also thought to be on the rise, due to the current ‘social media age’ that is proven to have links with poor mental health.’
What can we do to protect ourselves against rising anxiety? As with all things medical, prevention is better than cure. As Dr Winwood says, for those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, professional help may be needed to help manage symptoms, but there are some things you can do to help prevent feelings of anxiety:
Take care of your body: have a well-balanced diet, which will not only make you feel better physically, but mentally too.’ Limit alcohol, caffeine and sugar: diet modifications can be a way of relieving anxiety. Caffeine, sugar and alcohol can cause or exacerbate anxiety, so they are best avoided.’ Take time out for yourself every day: it may be a nice hot bath, reading a book or catching up with a friend – whatever it is, just take 20 minutes of your day to do something that makes you feel good.’
Manage your time: life can be hectic, so try and avoid activities you don’t find enjoyable and learn to say no.’ Keep an anxiety journal: if you are feeling anxious, make a note of it and why you think you felt that way. Tracking your experiences will calm you and help you see progress. If it escalates, record a panic attack to show your doctor or therapist.’ Download apps: apps like Headspace and Calm provide guides for meditation and mindfulness to help you stress less, focus more and sleep better.’
Are there lifestyle factors that can affect anxiety? The lifestyle you choose to adopt can have a major impact on levels of anxiety: Take up exercise: exercising releases endorphins which elevate your mood and reduce symptoms of depression. Mindful movement such as yoga and tai chi, can be particularly effective for anxiety sufferers.’ Change up your diet: a poor diet can provoke symptoms of anxiety, especially if there is a lack of nutrients. Try eating mood-boosting foods from the five major food groups, such as fish, fruit, vegetables and potatoes.’ Get more sleep: poor sleep has a strong effect on mood because our brains need replenishing. Therefore, sleep-deprived people have a much stronger tendency to struggle with their mental health.’ Reduce your stress: it can be hard to see a way out when you are bogged down with stress, and these feelings can exacerbate depression and anxiety. There are strategies that can help with stress management, such as identifying what creates stress for you, learning relaxation techniques and cultivating resilience to better manage stress.’
Anxiety can be incredibly debilitating, so it’s important that men feel able to voice their anxieties
Can anxiety and depression overlap? ‘While anxiety and depression are two different mental health conditions, their symptoms, causes and treatments can often overlap,' says Dr Winwood ‘Depression will often carry symptoms such as low mood, reduced energy and a loss of interest in doing activities you once loved. If you’re anxious, symptoms can include feeling agitated, having increased energy and often worrying about the future. Once these symptoms start interfering with your everyday life, it is time to seek help.’
Are men more at risk of anxiety because we are less likely to ask for help? A problem shared is a problem halved, but in our culture admitting to a mental health issue can be seen as a weakness. ‘It is most important that people open up about their mental health when they are struggling, whether it be to a friend, or a professional,’ urges Dr Winwood. ‘This is particularly the case for men, who do not traditionally feel like they can show their emotions. Anxiety can be incredibly debilitating, so it is important that men feel able to voice their anxieties, and not feel like it is in any way less serious or problematic than depression.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch war journalist Sebastian Junger talk about the panic attacks he had after coming back from covering the war in Afghanistan in this Ted Talk.
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For more information, please visit AXA PPP healthcare’s anxiety hub.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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