Panic attack
If a person suspects that he / she or a loved one is suffering from a panic attack, it is important to remember that the condition is treatable and call in the help of a professional as soon as possible.


What is a panic attack?

A panic attack on its own is not a disorder, but is associated with anxiety or other psychological disorders (eg depression, post-traumatic stress or substance abuse disorder) and / or medical conditions (eg heart condition, breathing problems, etc.). ).

A panic attack is a rapid and intense increase in fear or discomfort that makes someone feel as if they are having a heart attack, losing control, or even dying. There are also a certain number of physical and cognitive symptoms that can occur during this period. These symptoms are described in more detail below.

Note that an official diagnosis may only be made by a qualified person.


What are the symptoms of a panic attack?

The following symptoms are an indication, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – 5), accepted worldwide as the most authoritative source:

Did you know?
These sudden reactions can occur from a calm or anxious state.
  1. A panic attack is a sudden and intense fear or discomfort that culminates within minutes and during which at least four of the following:
    1. palpitations, feeling of a throbbing heart or accelerated heart rate
    2. sweet
    3. trembling or jerking
    4. shortness of breath or a feeling of suffocation
    5. feeling of suffocation
    6. chest pain or discomfort
    7. nausea or abdominal discomfort
    8. feeling dizzy, unsteady on feet, light-headed or faint
    9. cold shivers or heat sensation
    10. numbness or tingling sensation
    11. sense of unreality or being "detached from yourself"
    12. fear of losing control or going crazy
    13. fear of dying


Treatment of panic attacks

  1. Why is it necessary to treat panic attacks?
    Panic attacks can have a very limiting effect on one's quality of life and / or functioning. This is usually an indication that there is another disorder or problem in the person. It is essential to find out why the panic attack happened, so deciding how to treat it.
  2. How are panic attacks treated?
    1. Medical research
      A full medical examination (which may include blood tests) by a general practitioner is needed to determine if the panic attack is related to any medical conditions.
    2. Psychological examination and therapy
      If there is no medical cause for the panic attack, or if the symptoms occur in excess of the medical condition, the next step will be to make an appointment with a registered psychologist. During the first session, the symptoms will be discussed in detail and further recommendations made. Psychotherapy is usually needed to treat panic attacks (and any other disorders that may be associated with it) in the long term.
    3. Medication
      If medication is needed, the psychologist will be able to make a referral to a psychiatrist who can prescribe the necessary medication.
    4. Support groups
      Support groups are always very valuable as they give you the opportunity to learn from others who share similar experiences and challenges. Group members also support each other and the feeling that there are other people who understand what one is going through. Unfortunately, there is not always an active group in one's immediate environment. Online searches can help determine what's available. More information can be found on the SADAG website found.
If there is no support group in your area, this may give you an opportunity to start your own group!


What do I do if I have a panic attack?

  1. Try to sit in a safe place.
  2. Focus your attention on something on the ground eg. a tile, flower, brick, etc.
  3. Talk to yourself about what you see on the ground, focus on the detail.
  4. Try to bring your breathing to the point where it is slower and deeper. To get it right, for example, you can count: a thousand-and-a-thousand, a thousand-and-two, etc. and / or use a paper or plastic bag, which can focus your attention on the air you breathe in and out.
  5. Ask as soon as possible for support from someone you can trust. Make an appointment with your medical practitioner to begin the investigation.


What can I do to ease my stress?

Stress and anxiety can play a role in triggering panic attacks. Here are some practical tips to help you relieve your stress.

  1. Avoid or reduce alcohol, caffeine, smoking and drugs. These drugs can trigger panic attacks or aggravate symptoms.
  2. Exercise regularly to reduce tension.
  3. Get enough sleep.
  4. Learn and apply stress management techniques.
  5. Stick to your treatment plan.


How do I support someone with a panic attack?

  1. Encourage the person to seek professional help.
  2. If the person becomes discouraged, encourage him / her to discuss their experience with their physician and psychologist, and to stick to their treatment plan.
  3. Encourage healthy lifestyle choices, e.g. regular physical exercise, enough sleep, a balanced diet and healthy relaxation.
  4. Take a good look at yourself, as it can be exhausting to fulfill the support role. However, it is very important for the diagnosed person to take responsibility for their own symptoms and treatment.
A person does not choose to have panic attacks. It is not a random reaction. Support and understanding without condemnation can mean a lot to a diagnosed person.

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If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health issues, we suggest the following options:
  1. call your GP (if available);
  2. go to your nearest hospital emergency room;
  3. call one of the following emergency numbers: SADAG (the South African Depression and Anxiety Group) 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789 or suicide crisis line: 0800 567 567; or
  4. contact Wie is ek?