A panic attack is defined as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.” Panic attacks are common in people living with mental health issues such as anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and particularly affect those diagnosed with panic disorder.
Unfortunately, frontline treatments aren’t always effective in relieving panic attacks. Solutions such as benzodiazepines (known under brand names like Xanax and Valium) may relieve fear in the short term, but they have an extremely high potential for addiction, a notoriously difficult withdrawal and tend to treat the symptom but not the underlying cause.
Having panic attacks on a regular basis can have a severe impact on a person’s ability to enjoy life or even function normally, with some going on to develop co-morbidities such as agoraphobia (usually in an attempt to avoid anything that may trigger a panic attack or fear of not being close enough to “safe” people or areas) or substance misuse disorders.
What does a panic attack feel like?
Panic attacks are not dangerous (in the sense that they won’t cause bodily harm) and they are not the result of something “physically” wrong, but the symptoms can be so acute that people often assume they are having a heart attack, losing their mind, or even dying.
Common symptoms for panic attacks include:
- Intense chest or head pain
- A feeling of unreality
- A sense of impending doom
- Nausea and stomach cramping
- Feeling unable to breathe
It is important to understand that these symptoms aren’t imagined. What people experience in a panic attack is very real — it just isn’t going to cause them any physical harm. Activity in the brain and nervous system creates a physiological response that is indistinguishable from what a person would experience if they were in mortal danger, including a spike in blood pressure and a cascade of stress hormones.
What triggers panic attacks
Through observation and research, we now understand that panic attacks occur due to activity in three aspects of our being — our physical selves (a.k.a our physiology), our psychology and our respiratory system. We know that there is a physical cause as around 60% of panic attack sufferers respond to medication such as SSRI’s, and we can observe the panic response in their brain and nervous system.
The emotional aspect of panic attacks is more complex but no less powerful. Panic attacks can sometimes have emotional triggers, and our emotional response to feelings of panic can also serve to entrench patterns of worry and stress which make panic attacks more likely.
The third factor at the root of panic attacks is the way we breathe. The medical community is becoming more aware of the role our breath (and particularly, disturbed breathing patterns) have on our autonomic nervous system, and how conscious control of our breath may influence the way we feel for the better.
How yoga can help relieve panic attacks
There is a growing wealth of research to suggest that yoga can help people who experience panic attacks due to underlying mental health issues, particularly through the easing of symptoms associated with anxiety disorders and PTSD. One notable example is a study published in the Frontiers of Psychology, which found “significant improvement in panic symptomatology following both the practice of yoga and the combination of yoga and psychotherapy.”
While there aren’t many studies that investigate panic attacks specifically, yoga therapy is increasingly viewed as a viable adjunct treatment for many of the conditions which include panic attacks in their symptoms. Unfortunately, around 40% of anxiety sufferers prove resistant to primary treatments for anxiety, creating a pressing need amongst health professionals and patients for other efficacious interventions.
The three aspects of yoga that support healing
Yoga therapy offers a sustainable treatment option that patients can continue long-term with their own private practice. Yoga addresses three parts of a person’s being (the breath, body and mind), which holistically supports healing across both the physical and psychological aspects of their illness, while also offering a spiritual framework for life should they wish to engage with it.
Breathing is often disordered in people with panic attacks, which can have a negative impact on their wider nervous system. They may “gulp” air, unconsciously hold their breath, over-breathe or breathe shallowly, and most especially when they begin to feel anxious.
Disordered breathing is something people develop unconsciously and it is often a reactive attempt to control their feelings. Unfortunately, however, it has the opposite effect, putting their nervous system into a state of high alert and culminating in periods of psychological crisis.
Pranayama (the yogic word for breathing exercises) is of increasing interest to anxiety researchers. The relationship between anxiety and our breathing is becoming ever more understood, and learning breath work with a yoga therapist can help people manage their anxiety in an effective and accessible way.
A key component of panic attacks and anxiety are the distressing physical symptoms that accompany feelings of fear. People living with acute anxiety often display high levels of physical tension and are extremely sensitive to physical stimuli. For example, a person who regularly has panic attacks may notice and fixate on a passing headache that another person barely registers, and feel increasingly anxious about the pain.
This creates a feedback loop where the pain is amplified by the body’s physical stress response, which goes on to heighten psychological anxiety. This leads to hyper-vigilance and for some can develop into a sense of alienation from their own body.
Yoga asanas offer a gentle method of exercise that helps people connect with their bodies and feel less uncomfortable within themselves. With the help of a yoga therapist, highly anxious people can increase their “window of tolerance” for physical discomfort, learn to breathe correctly under physical strain and increase their resilience to stress.
The psychological aspect of panic attacks is powerful and can impact people’s lives in a profoundly negative way. They may stop taking part in activities they once enjoyed, become convinced they will suffer a heart attack or stroke, avoid spaces that aren’t perceived as safe to them, or become depressed.
Mindfulness and meditation are key components of yoga and can help people to become calmer and more able to cope with negative thoughts and emotions. With regular practice, mindfulness increases people’s capacity to recognise their own stress triggers and gently guide themselves away from detrimental thought patterns and behaviours.
Experiencing panic attacks can be life-changing for the sufferer, estranging them from the person they thought they were and the life they thought they’d lead. Managing panic attacks and the mental health issues that cause them requires holistic support which sustains people through acutely vulnerable periods of their life. When used alongside talking therapies and medication, yoga therapy can provide another pillar of care on the road to recovery.
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