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Don’t Panic!

There is help for panic and anxiety disorders

iStock_000011804035_Full“Like a Sledgehammer”

Bank manager Mark, 42, felt like he’d been hit by a sledgehammer when he was struck by a panic attack without warning. He was in his office preparing for an important management meeting when suddenly, his whole body was shaking, and his heart was pounding out of his chest. He experienced nausea, sweating, numb hands, dizziness and he couldn’t catch his breath – it felt like a heart attack! He was terrified and thought he was going to die.

Luckily, his colleagues noticed that something was not right and immediately called an ambulance to take him to the nearest hospital. The emergency room doctor ruled out any life-threatening medical problems and assured Mark that he was physically healthy. However, to Mark’s surprise, he learned that he had just experienced symptoms of a severe panic attack!

Glass of water and pills on table and woman with abdominal ache in backgroundHaving one or two panic attacks over the course of a lifetime may not be cause for concern. However, if an individual has more attacks, it could mean that he or she has panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition uses the term “panic attack” (not “anxiety attack”) to indicate the presence of panic disorder. People with panic disorder have sudden attacks of intense fear or discomfort that generally last for about ten minutes and then subside. These attacks, called panic attacks, literally hit individuals like a sledgehammer. During these attacks, individuals – like Mark – feel bodily and psychologically crushed to pieces.

iStock_000024029175_MediumPulling the Trigger

Panic attacks usually occur unprovoked and out of the blue, but they can also be caused by a phobia or by post-stress disorder. One of the worst side effects of panic attacks is the intense fear that follows, of having another panic attack in the future. It is the fear of the fear that something “sledgehammer-like” might happen at any moment (anticipatory anxiety), which makes their lives so physically frightening and unpredictable. Panic-ridden victims may start avoiding places associated with these attacks, like the office, the MRT or the supermarket. They may even feel unable to leave home because no place feels safe.

Mark’s example clearly demonstrates that panic attacks are immensely frightening events and become a problem when they interfere with our performance (such as at work) or our everyday lives.

AnxietyDistress Signals

Panic attacks are characterised by four or more of the following physical symptoms which cause the most distress:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath
  • Feeling of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded or faint
  • Chills or heat sensationsOh, my throat
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • De-realisation (feelings of unreality) or de-personalisation (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or going crazy
  • Fear of dying

The good news is, although panic attack feelings are horrible, you are neither going mad or having a heart attack, nor will you die of fright!

Panic and Anxiety: What’s the difference?

Many people use the terms “panic attack” and “anxiety attack” interchangeably. However, from a medical point of view, there are differences between panic and anxiety attacks, which are best described in terms of the intensity and duration of the symptoms.

When faced with something that makes us anxious or fearful, we constantly ruminate about it and worry excessively. Anxiety generally builds up over a period of time, unlike panic attacks. Anxiety attacks often come in response to daily stressors, resulting in a feeling of ‘spider-like’ anxiety creeping up on you. For example, while on an airplane listening to your captain’s request to fasten your seatbelt because of air

turbulence, you may be frightened and may feel your heart racing, but this kind of intense anxiety goes away as soon as the stressor goes away, such as when the “fasten seatbelt” sign is turned off. Panic attacks, on the other hand, are sudden, unpredictable and often, there is no clear reason or obvious stressor for these attacks.

The symptoms of intense anxiety are very similar to those of panic attacks and may include:

  • Muscle tensioniStock_000024026839_Large
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Increased startle response
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness

Some of these anxiety symptoms are similar to the symptoms linked with panic attacks. However, an important distinction is that they are generally less “sledgehammer-like” – less intense in their effect on people’s minds and bodies.

Another important difference is that, unlike a panic (sledgehammer) attack, the symptoms of anxiety are persistent and often last for days, weeks or even months. When we are dominated by this kind of anxiety, we simply can’t turn off the thinking process. We are always preoccupied with worries and irrational fears about the past, present and future. Ultimately, our power to think and act intelligently becomes impaired!

Whether you are dealing with (brief) panic attacks, persistent anxiety or both, talk to a health professional and seek help! Panic disorders and other anxiety disorders can be treated with counselling (psychotherapy), medicine or both.

Dr Wolff von Auer is a well-known SAC-registered Counsellor and Certified Hypnotherapist in the field of depression and anxiety disorders. He is also a passionate and acknowledged keynote speaker cum trainer in the field of Soft Skills and Mental Wellbeing. For more information, please visit
Posted by ezyhealth on Apr 1 2015. Filed under Mental Health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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