Mental wellbeing for young people

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Kate Middleton photo Kate Middleton · 31 Jul, 2020

Panic attacks feel horrid. And the first time you have one it usually happens apparently without warning: suddenly you feel dreadful and terrified about what is happening to you. So where do panic attacks COME from and how can you get back in control and stop living in fear of another?


Panic attacks are something a lot of people haven’t really heard about until they have one. But they’re actually more and more common.

Panic attacks happen when you’re hit by a wave of anxiety that pushes you over the edge into the emergency alert mode of your mind. If you think of anxiety as a scale from 0-10 there’s a moment around the top of that scale where your brain has an emergency mode - where it literally stops you thinking and triggers such a strong sense of anxiety and dread that your every instinct tells you to run. In this mode the physical symptoms feel incredibly powerful - thumping racing heart, breathlessness, feeling light-headed - and even more unusual symptoms like chest pain, tingling fingers, or feeling like you might be sick. Lots of people think something REALLY serious is happening and they might be about to die, or pass out, or have a heart attack or something. It feels TOTALLY rubbish.

What is ACTUALLY happening is like a cascade of anxiety piled on top of anxiety. So you feel anxious - and your body triggers as part of that a physical response designed to grab your attention. But if you don’t realise what is going on, or notice, it ramps up that response - and then sometimes when you do notice it, instead of realising it is anxiety, it feels SO PHYSICAL that it triggers fear of what is going on or what might happen. And of course, that fear makes the anxiety response worse, so the symptoms get stronger - and it can spiral up and up until it gets really full-on.

Panic attacks can look really dramatic and it's not unusual for people to call an ambulance, because they look so awful. But actually they are nothing like as bad as they seem. A lot of the weird stuff you feel is because your breathing goes so haywire, and the levels of important things like oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood change. Once you calm your breathing down and drop that anxiety level everything will go back to normal.

The trouble is when your mind is in emergency mode it decides it isn’t really the time for a deep analysis of what is going on - maybe you should just run now and ask questions later. So when you are in the grip of panic it is hard to rationalise, or think through what is happening. And you may find you need someone else to help you calm yourself down and settle your breathing. But if you can learn to intervene BEFORE it gets that bad you can learn to dampen down the response before you hit panic - and feel much more in control. Then if you do feel anxiety bubbling up you can deal with it before it gets as far as a panic attack.

Try this:

Humming is a really good way of calming down your breathing - and it takes your mind off what is going on too. Got a favourite song or playlist? Grab your headphones, find a quiet space, and put it on. Hum along, or you can belt out the words to the song if you’re on your own. If you practice with the same songs in safe calm spaces like your own bedroom then you’ll find listening to them when you’re out and feeling anxious even better for dropping the panic level.

The other really good thing to do if you know your anxiety is rising and might trigger a panic attack is to just get yourself out of the space you are in. So maybe grab a quiet moment, nip to the loo, or pop outside for a breather. The change of scenery often helps. Remember - as your anxiety level rises and your head goes into emergency mode you’ll find your thinking gets less helpful - so once you feel your mind starting to close down and thoughts like ‘I need to get out’ or ‘I can’t do this’ - that’s a sign you need to take a break.


Pandemic living: Why do I feel so anxious?

Pandemic living: Why do I feel so anxious?