New data from the Medibank Better Health Index has found the number of Aussies affected by panic attacks has skyrocketed over the past nine years, rising from 600,000 in 2008 to over a million people today. What’s more, the data has revealed the incidence is significantly higher amongst younger Aussies — particularly those aged 18-24 — and that females are more than twice as likely to be affected than males.
So how can you tell if you or a loved one is having, or has suffered, a panic attack? And is there anything you can do to help relieve or prevent symptoms? We take a look.
Recognising symptoms of a panic attack
A panic attack can be very terrifying, particularly if you’ve never experienced one before. The best way to describe it is an intense and overwhelming feeling of panic or fear. This feeling can come on suddenly and unexpectedly. Symptoms typically last a few minutes, but the effects of the attack can last for hours afterwards.
According to Lifeline, symptoms of a panic attack can also include:
- Accelerated heartbeat or palpitations
- Dizziness, faintness or nausea
- Chest pains or tightening
- Hot or cold flushes
- Trembling or shaking
- Numbness or tingling
- Thinking irrationally, such as feeling like you’re dying, losing control or going mad
Many people will experience one-off panic attacks at some point during their lives. However, it’s when these attacks happen again and again, impacting day-to-day life, that the condition is considered ‘panic disorder’ — a form of anxiety.
Common causes of panic attacks
It can be hard to pinpoint exactly why someone is suffering from panic attacks. There could be a number of factors at play, such as psychological factors, genetic predisposition, stress, or a traumatic event. If you think you may have suffered an attack, it’s important you seek help immediately to rule out any underlying health issues.
What to do if you are having a panic attack
If you feel a panic attack coming on, there are some exercises you can try to help relieve symptoms:
- Stop and remind yourself what’s going on: If you notice a panic attack coming on, reassure yourself that while symptoms can be horrible, these are feelings you’ve experienced before and they will subside.
- Control rapid breathing: To help slow your breathing, close your eyes and concentrate on breathing in slowly and gently through your nose, and then out through your mouth. To help slow you down, count to five for each in-breath and then again for every out-breath.
- Focus your attention elsewhere: Rather than telling yourself to relax and stop panicking, distract yourself from the symptoms you’re experiencing. For example, you could try counting backwards or recall the words of a favourite song.
How to prevent or manage symptoms
- Speak to your GP: If you think you could be suffering from panic attacks, make sure you visit your GP. That way you’ll be able to get the right information and course of action to manage your symptoms.
- Exercise regularly: Exercise is a great way to relieve stress and improve mood. Aim for around 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day – this could be anything from walking to work or hitting spin class.
- Eat a balanced diet: A well-rounded diet can do wonders for your health, both physically and mentally. For those prone to panic attacks, it’s important to keep blood sugar levels stabilised.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Alcohol and caffeine can worsen panic attack symptoms, so try to avoid these.
- Get enough sleep: A good night’s sleep is important for your physical and mental wellbeing so try to aim for around eight hours of quality sleep each night. To help achieve this, it’s important you take the necessary steps to help relax before bed. For example, avoid sugary foods, caffeine, using your phone or watching TV in the hours leading up to bed.
- Relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises, meditation and other relaxation techniques can help to manage some of the symptoms of anxiety.
MORE: Anxiety explained