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Donít panic - dealing with anxiety attacks

A panic attack can strike at any time, causing shaking, a racing heart, erratic breathing or stomach pangs. But while it might feel like youíre going crazy, experts say what is happening has the most natural causes.

Your body is behaving in a way learnt through millions of years of evolution. Faced with a sudden fear of attack, your survival instinct has kicked in, and it's all happened before your mind even knew it was coming.

Faced with a wild animal, this response is something that you would be extremely grateful for. But if you have an attack while walking around your local supermarket, something must have gone wrong.

It has, says Mark Tyrell from Uncommon Knowledge. Mark runs the website and offers courses on overcoming what he terms "episodes of high anxiety".

He says, "Ninety-nine per cent of the time there has been an overflow of stress. In a sense, the 'tripwire' is set higher than usual and people fall over it." The majority of first-time panic attacks occur at a time of high stress such as the loss of a job or the death of a loved one, he says.

Fear of the fear of anxiety

But panic attacks themselves aren't actually dangerous, says Mark, and the term "attack" is unfortunate. The real damage is emotional - people are frightened about the seemingly illogical nature of the event. Ashamed or confused by the attack, they attach it to a particular occasion or location - such as the London Underground or the park at sunset.

They then try to avoid that situation at all costs. But, without understanding what happened and how to deal with it, another attack could easily occur and this time in a different place.

"Quite often the anxiety starts to grow," says Mark. "In the street, at a social gathering. There's a feeling that you can't cope and this loss of confidence and that can become very frightening." Even worse is the fear of having another attack, which itself can bring one on.

So how do you avoid an attack or deal with it if you do get one? There is some evidence that certain people are prone to panic attacks. A recent study found that 90 per cent of family members who suffered from such attacks carried a genetic abnormality. The same abnormality is also present in many other people but is rare in people who never suffer from anxiety.

That is not the only answer though. Dorset-based clinical psychologist Professor Roger Baker says panic attacks are a mixture of genetics and the environment. If either of your parents were particularly anxious, you are up to seven times more likely to be anxious yourself, he says. But then the majority of people who seek help for panic attacks say their parents never suffered from them.

Dealing with it

If you do have a panic attack, you need to help your body out rather than try to approach the problem rationally. Controlling your breathing will bring the body back under control (breathing into a bag helps). Or going for some quick exercise will balance it out.

But once it is over you need to learn to remove the anxiety from your mind. Mark Tyrell says, "You get them to relive it in a relaxing situation, get them to visualise it as if on a TV and go into the memory. Then you go slowly backwards in the memory. If you can get them to be relaxed with the memory then it appears to go to an upper part of the brain."

Another technique is to get people to "fence off" their bad experiences by giving them a mark out of 10 for emotional impact, he says. Even the process of doing this introduces rationality and so dampens down the anxiety.

It works too, as one happy student points out. Victoria Scott from London was freaked out when she had a panic attack on the underground. "It was just after my nana had died. The train was delayed and we remained between stations for 10 minutes. It was totally unexpected and out of the blue. It scared me silly."

In control

Victoria's GP suggested she go on a course of antidepressants - which, although can be helpful in severe cases to calm the person down, will not tackle the root cause of people's anxieties. Instead she took various courses to understand her anxieties and deal with them.

A few months later, she said she felt she had conquered the problem. "If it ever were to return it could never be as strong or scary, as I now know too much," she says. "Which is a power over it in itself."

The good news is that a lot of people can get rid of unwanted anxiety and panic attacks altogether. The bad news is that just as many are keeping it to themselves. Anxiety is not a dirty word.

"You don't cure anxiety," says Mark. "We need it to go off occasionally - it's like a fire alarm. You need it there just in case."

Further information:

Uncommon Knowledge
PAX (Support organisation)

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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