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Panic attack treatment

Treatment of panic attacks, prevention and what you can do to help yourself.

Introduction

Panic attacks are brief episodes of severe anxiety or fear, giving rise to a number of symptoms. Each episode usually resolves without the need for any treatment.

Most panic attacks are not caused by a specific event but rather a group of factors. Some, such as the fear of flying, can have a direct and specific trigger, and in these cases, the best ‘treatment’ is to avoid the problem. However, this may not always be easy or convenient to do.

If you suffer from panic attacks, the first thing to do is to reassure yourself that no matter the severity of symptoms, they are usually within the normal range of responses to stress and anxiety, and the problem is experienced by up to 20% of adults at some point in their lives.

In most cases, you should be able to cope and overcome the problem using a number of self-help treatments and relaxation techniques as described on this page. However, if the problem is severe, you may wish to seek the help of a psychologist or other therapist to help you overcome the problem.

This page describes the techniques you can use as well as the treatments available for symptoms of panic attacks, should these be required.

Treatment of a panic attack

Most panic attacks occur as isolated incidents and do not require any treatment. However, people suffering from recurrent episodes of panic attacks may wish to use the following exercises or techniques (they are not, strictly speaking, treatments) to help lessen the severity of attacks and reduce symptoms:

  • Breathe slowly. It is good to remember this first as, once your breathing becomes too quick, it may become difficult to control. Breathe in as far as you can, counting slowly to 3 (as in 3 seconds) and then breathe out to a count of between 5 and 8. Do this as slowly as possible. Pursing your lips will help you do this better. Holding your hands to your stomach can also help you control your breathing and make you more aware of how rapid your breaths are.
  • Relax your muscles. When you are able to control your breathing, turn your attention to relaxing your muscles. Start by concentrating on your neck and shoulders, turning your head to stretch your muscles. Next, rotate both shoulders. These steps can be taken discreetly – you do not want those around you to know that you are suffering a panic attack. If you are alone, you can turn your attention to the other muscles in your body, and a simple way to get them relaxed is to walk around the room slowly, swinging your arms about.

Treatment of hyperventilation during a panic attack

One of the early symptoms of a panic attack is faster breathing. When this becomes out of control, the term hyperventilation is used. If hyperventilation is not too severe or if you catch it quickly enough at its start, the exercises described above should be sufficient to abort the attack.

Hyperventilation, or 'too much breathing', causes symptoms of tingling and muscle cramps because short, rapid breaths decrease the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood and this in turn affects the way our tissues work.

This is the reason that ‘breathing into a bag’ is a treatment for hyperventilation during a panic attack when no other treatment is available. This increases the amount of carbon dioxide we take into our lungs and concentrating on your breathing in this way also helps us slow down the rate of breathing.

Self-help treatment for panic attacks and prevention

Prevention is better than cure and there are a number of steps (or treatments) you can use to help prevent the onset of panic attacks or reduce symptoms:

  • Reduce your intake of caffeine – this worsens your symptoms
  • Reduce your intake of alcohol and recreational drugs (if you are taking these)
  • Exercise for 30 minutes each day, if not in the gym, then a simple brisk walk will help
  • Learn to relax – see our page on anxiety treatment for a simple exercise
  • Learn to use stress management techniques - see our page on anxiety treatments and self-help for more information
  • Get involved in some stress management activities such as yoga and pilates
  • Consider using support groups and counselling
  • If you suffer from underlying stress or anxiety, you might wish to learn more about herbal licensed treatments containing herbs such as valerian, St. John’s wort and Avena sativa.

  • Further reading:
    Panic attacks
    Panic attack treatment


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