The crushing chest pains and sudden sensations of fear that accompany panic attacks can be extremely frightening. Such attacks are triggered by a perceived danger and can occur at any time, and it is estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from an occasional panic attack, while 1 in 50 has recurring attacks (panic disorder). They also affect twice as many women than men.
Panic attacks cause both physical and emotional symptoms; emotional symptoms include an overwhelming fear or apprehension, while the physical symptoms include nausea, sweating, heart palpitations, uncontrollable shaking and shortness of breath. These attacks often last between 5 and 20 minutes and some people liken them to a heart attack.
What causes panic attacks?
A common concern is that panic attacks may occur for no apparent reason and often catch you completely off guard. An attack occurs when the body perceives an immediate threat or danger, which causes nerve impulses in the brain to go into overdrive. Although this threat if often a false alarm, the body releases adrenaline preparing it for ‘fight-or-flight’ – something which is useful in extreme life-or-death situations, but not so useful when you are going about your day-to-day business. The extra adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and the muscles to tense, while blood is diverted to the muscles causing you to feel light headed.
Although the exact cause can vary from person to person, certain factors are known to increase the risk, including:
- Stressful situations
- Traumatic experiences, such as bereavement
- Nutrient deficiencies
Finding the best treatment can be tricky so always speak to your GP for medical advice regarding your individual needs. Avoiding stressful situations can help but this is not always practical, so the diet may be the best place to start. There is evidence to show that vitamin and mineral deficiencies cause imbalances in the body that increase the risk of anxiety and panic attacks. Certain foods also heighten feelings of anxiety – sugar and caffeine stimulate the adrenal gland and upset blood sugar levels, and while they are not solely responsible, they can contribute to the frequency of attacks.
Don’t live in fear – try the following relaxation techniques to stop panic attacks before they take hold.
How to stop panic attacks in 7 easy steps
1) Breathe into a bag
Slow your breathing. When you feel anxiety building it is important to focus on something the body does not perceive to be threatening, because if breathing becomes too shallow, the panic attack may worsen. Take slow deep breaths for the count of three and then lengthen the exhalation of each breath. Some people find that using a paper bag helps to control their breathing.
2) Cold water treatment
Splashing the face with cold water helps to shock the panic out of the system, slows down breathing, and reduces the heart rate by up to 25%. Alternatively, you can soak a towel in cold water and place it around the face and neck. If anxiety is severe then you may find submerging the face in water for a number of seconds even more effective.
3) The power of laughter
Laughter changes your breathing pattern and can help to release tension and anger. Try to shift your focus from the anxiety you are feeling by concentrating on a positive image that you find comforting. This can be an effective distraction technique where you fool the brain into thinking about something else. Laughter also helps to reduce the level of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol in the body, which slows the heart rate and relaxes the muscles.
Acupuncture is an ancient practice that involves placing needles at specific pressure points around the body. When performed correctly, acupuncture is thought to help balance energy and relieve feelings of tension or anxiety.
Over time, yoga helps to relax the body and mind, and lower everyday anxiety and stress levels. This practice involves breathing techniques to slow the heart rate and reduce nervous energy. Yoga also involves self-study, which can help to identify any underlying causes of anxiety.
Essential oils can offer calming effects that help you to relax and unwind. Try adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to a handkerchief or oil burner. Some people also find it beneficial to add 1 to 2 drops to a paper bag to relax their breathing – but use sparingly so the fragrance is not overwhelming.
7) Natural remedies for anxiety
In today’s medicine orientated society, many of us are turning to natural alternatives to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks, and certain vitamins and minerals can play a significant role.If you suffer from anxiety consider one of the following supplements for anxiety and stress:
Vitamin B Complex
The eight B vitamins, particularly B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12, are essential for the proper function of the nervous system and can help to calm the nerves and reduce mental stress and fatigue. For these reasons, they are often referred to as anti-stress nutrients. Good food sources of vitamin B include liver, meat, turkey, whole grains, and bananas, while supplements can also help to cover any dietary gaps. All eight B vitamins work together, and so many people find it best to take a vitamin b complex supplement to prevent any imbalances.
Calcium and Magnesium
Magnesium is often referred to as the ‘calming mineral‘ and it may help to prepare the body for the fight-or-flight response associated with stressful situations. The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol depletes levels of magnesium in the body, and so those who feel stressed and overworked can be more vulnerable to panic attacks. Good food sources include dark-green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, whole grains such as oats and buckwheat. In supplement form, calcium and magnesium are best taken in a 2:1 ratio to optimise their absorption and utilisation by the body.
We produce much of our vitamin D from the sun, but during the winter months the sun’s rays simply aren’t strong enough for our bodies to produce sufficient levels. As a result, those of us living in the UK often have fairly low vitamin D levels during the winter, which can cause any feelings of anxiety and depression to worsen – a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It’s important to ensure that your vitamin D levels are topped up throughout the year to reduce the risk of seasonal mood and anxiety disorders.
Iron is an essential cofactor for the synthesis of serotonin in the brain, and low dietary intakes of iron can cause anaemia, fatigue, anxiety and panic attacks. A recent 2015 study found that patients admitted to hospital for panic attacks and hyperventilation all had low levels of iron and vitamin B6. These findings were compared to a control group, who all showed adequate levels. However, this was only a small scale study, and so further research is needed. Iron is widely available in foods such as liver, shellfish and chickpeas, however, according to the World Health Organisation, iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. Some people, particularly women of childbearing age, may find iron supplements to be beneficial.
5HTP is an amino acid that helps to boost serotonin levels, and studies have shown that low levels of serotonin in the brain can facilitate panic attacks. One small-scale placebo-controlled trial involved participants taking 200mg doses of 5HTP and being subjected to a 35% CO2 challenge. Findings showed that participants in the 5HTP group experienced fewer panic attacks, compared t the placebo group. However, this another small-scale study, and so more research in required.