Panic Stations: simple steps to prevent panic attacks
We’re living through a panic epidemic. The number of people reporting anxiety disorders is on the rise, while the average age of onset (between 16-19) is getting lower. In fact, it’s an affliction now biased towards youth, with a third of young women and one in 10 young men suffering from panic attacks, according to British charity YouthNet.
Is this simply due to an increased awareness around anxiety-related disorders? In part, thinks Dr Paul Kelly, an educational and child psychologist. “Research suggests it’s related to improved identification and a reduction in stigma. Individuals feel able to seek help and support.”
According to psychologists, there are a whole host of other potential explanations for the attack of Gen Y anxiety; the rise of technology and social media; the ‘exam factory’ approach to education; austerity measures on individuals, families and neighbourhoods; excess choice, from supermarket aisles to life decisions; fewer social structures and less support, like family, faith and community; and increased pressure from work. Even societal expectations of our mental and physical wellbeing are verging on obsessional, encapsulated by the adage ‘health is the new wealth’.
A BLESSING AND A CURSE
Crying ‘snowflake’ is a harsh comprehension of the trials and tribulations dealt to the first generation in recorded history which is projected to be worse off than those prior.
Attempts to raise awareness of the issues via the universal millennial messenger source, social media, could also be seen to exacerbate the problem. So the ‘cure’ is also the cause.
“Social media has a huge impact in depleting self-esteem, through comparison to others, keeping up with peers, being influenced by celebrities and the media’s depiction of ‘perfection’”, says Anna Williamson, counsellor and author of Breaking Mad: The Insider’s Guide to Conquering Anxiety. “Sufferers aren’t equipped to process it all emotionally, so the pressure and need to fit in is causing an increase in anxiety and panic attacks.”
The crux of the matter is that the world at large is becoming a more stressful place to live. As well as the well-documented psychological downsides of always being ‘on’, it’s hard to avoid daily updates on the dire state of things; Trump, Brexit, climate change, reduced bee numbers, birds, ice or the ozone layer, increasing populations, terrorism, artificial intelligence taking over industries, then the whole world… So, unlike anxiety attacks, the panic variant isn’t necessarily a response to direct outside triggers, but an accumulated sense of fear. Dr Kelly explains it thus: “Think of our levels of stress being like a cup filled with water. If the cup is filled up to the brim already, it will only take a few drops of ‘stress’ to make it overflow.”
PREPARE FOR ACTION
Humans all experience fear remarkably similarly. It triggers the amygdala in the centre of the brain and, if sufficiently frightened, we enter ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. “When the brain perceives a threat in its environment, it wants to get you out of danger. The neurons auto-generate a fast, short, shallow breath, and it’s this rhythm rate and depth that arouses the neurons to trigger a Locus Coeruleus to activate your stress response. So the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and the heart rate increases, preparing the body for action,” explains Stuart Sandeman, founder of Breathpod.
“Nowadays, the ‘hazard’ your brain has detected is unlikely to be a life-threatening situation. It may be an emotional trigger, a memory or even an email which doesn’t require a sympathetic response.
“The body and mind readies itself to fight, run away or shut down and freeze on the spot. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing becomes shallow, we get a dry mouth, there are changes in our gut, we may sweat and feel faint and we stop thinking clearly and instead act on instinct.
This happens in response to anything we are scared of, like spiders or heights, but it can also be a cycle of fear about the fear and the response itself,” says Dr Kelly.
The physiological response has been preserved impressively well, despite us requiring it far less than we would have done in the past. While the bodily changes would have helped us deal with a wild animal encounter, they don’t translate usefully to the office.
Typically lasting between 5-20 minutes, though sometimes up to an hour or more, experiences of panic attacks can vary, despite the same responses happening internally. Understanding what’s happening in the brain and body, and even talking about it, can radically reduce their power and put the sufferer back in control. While panic attacks can feel life-threatening, it’s vital to know they’re not harmful and will always pass. Attempting to remember this can help break the cycle of fear.
HACK YOUR MIND
Usually caused by an amalgamation of stressors, panic attacks are not the simplest thing to treat, but there are lots of options which can be helpful. “We recommend ways to help lower the levels of anxiety overall, rather than just dealing with the attacks themselves’, suggests Dr Kelly. “There is some good evidence supporting ways of reducing stress and anxiety through a range of approaches, including mindfulness, meditation, talking therapies, mild to moderate exercise, creativity and being in nature.”
Research conducted by the University of Surrey found people who completed a mindfulness course reported a 58% reduction in anxiety levels and a 40% decline in perceived stress. Increasingly, breath work is thought to have a significant effect on reducing anxiety and stress.
As Stuart Sandeman explains, “If you notice the onset of panic, you can consciously control your breathing (by using, for instance, timed breath where the exhale is longer than the inhale) to send a different signal back to the neurons, so the Locus Coeruleus responds in the way you want. This means you can use your breath to override the panic response, hacking into the brain’s control centre and enabling you to create a calm response.”
Whether it’s seeking help via mental health channels, downloading an app (such as Calm) or just taking some notice of your breathing, one thing is abundantly clear: we all need to de-stress. B
If you’re suffering from anxiety or panic disorders, speak to your GP or The Samaritans on freephone 116 123