By Emsie Martin
Imagine you’re walking down the street and all of a sudden a truck comes at you out of nowhere. You experience an intense feeling of fear, your heart beats uncontrollably, you break into a sweat and fear leaves you speechless. Or imagine you’re shopping or preparing for work and you get this feeling. Is it an anxiety disorder or a panic attack? They are so closely related that it is difficult to distinguish between them.
What is an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack is a sudden overwhelming feeling of fear that could lead to physical and emotional reactions. An anxiety attack usually lasts for 20–30 minutes and then subsides.
- Do you feel tense, worried and anxious all the time?
- Does your anxiety negatively affect your work, school or family responsibilities?
- Are you afraid that you are going to lose control?
- Are you often overcome by fear?
- Do you avoid daily situations because you become anxious?
- Do you sometimes get palpitations?
When danger is observed, the body reacts by preparing to either fight or flee. Anxiety therefore causes a whole range of physical symptoms or reactions. Anxiety is often seen as a physical sickness and people suffering from anxiety will go for many doctor’s appointments before anxiety is diagnosed.
Some people believe that panic or anxiety attacks only happen to people who become hyperexcited and worry too much over things.
What is the cause?
- Genetics (family history)
- Constant stress
- Changes in the way certain parts of your brain function
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Medical conditions, e.g. asthma, low blood sugar levels, overactive thyroid gland, heart problems
Panic attack or anxiety attack
Although the symptoms are the same, a panic attack is usually more extreme and unexpected, without a clear cause. It happens suddenly and then disappears as suddenly.
An anxiety attack is caused by excessive or prolonged worries about several daily events and usually happens while waiting for a stressful event and could stretch over days or weeks.
Some people experience only one or two panic attacks in their lifetime. However, if you get repeated panic attacks or are worried about when the next one is going to catch you, you may be suffering from a panic or anxiety disorder.
Physical symptoms could include the following:
There are no warning signs but there are usually the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Uncontrollable shaking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- You feel dizzy and unsteady on your feet
- Stomach disorder
- Cold shivers or hot flushes
- Tingling or numbness of fingers and toes
- Feeling of being suffocated
Diagnosis and treatment
Panic disorder is a medical condition and can be treated. Everybody experiences it differently and it is important to get medical help.
- You have to understand what is going on in your body when you get a panic attack.
- Determine the underlying cause.
- Get the best treatment.
- Allow yourself some time alone.
- Try to breathe slower and calm your thoughts.
- Use all your senses to visualise a relaxing scene.
- Go for a jog.
- Breathe slower or breathe into a paper bag.
- Listen to your favourite music.
- Focus on the present and objects around you that make you happy.
- Breathe in deeply and stretch your body.
If you want to read more about different anxiety disorders, you can visit the website of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) at http://www.sadag.org/.