"In a panic attack, I feel like a thunderbolt hits my head. I totally climbed up: I'm firmly convinced that something very bad will happen right away. I have tachycardia, feel dizzy, and then: fear of death. I really feel like I'm dying (. ..) "Student Charlotte (name changed by editors) told us about his panic attacks. Then we talked to a psychotherapist.
Mrs. Licht, what exactly happens to the body during a panic attack? Panic is the fear of death – the brain is convinced: I'm dying now. The body mobilizes all the power to escape from this supposedly dangerous situation. The symptoms are felt accordingly throughout the body: you begin to sweat, your muscles tighten, your heart pounding like crazy.
Are there typical triggers for panic attacks? Often, panic attacks happen in normal everyday situations, often in situations where you feel locked up so you cannot escape – for example, in Charlotte, in a tram. A full streetcar is actually part of everyday life and is not a bad situation in itself. But at the moment, the affected person perceives her as extremely dangerous. Most people who panic have another stress in their lives. This stressor should be taken seriously.
What could be the stressors, for example? These include workloads such as persistent workload, relationship crises, recent separation, fear of an impending embarrassment …
Can you tell what kind of people are affected by panic attacks? Basically, every human being can be influenced because fear is a basic emotion that everyone knows. Panic is extreme fear, nothing else. People who are more anxious, insecure, or more sensitive are believed to have a tendency to develop anxiety disorder. According to research, three to five percent of the population are affected – so many people. But not everyone who once had a panic attack automatically develops a panic disorder.
Are young people especially affected by panic attacks? Yes, panic usually begins in late puberty or early adulthood. But there are people who do not develop panic attacks until late adulthood.
What helps best? Basically, panic is very curable – the sooner you go to the therapist, the better. In the case of panic disorders, therapies are especially important because otherwise, situations that one is afraid of are increasingly avoided – and this only makes matters worse. In order to overcome panic attacks, breathing exercises help briefly. In case of emergency, psychotherapy usually helps, no medication is needed.
Is it possible to overcome the fear of fear that Charlotte describes? In therapy, you learn that panic is unpleasant but not dangerous. Learn techniques to calm yourself. Then you feel your return to situations and are taught so that all avoided situations are harmless. This is how you regain your daily routine and manage your panic disorder.
How can relatives help? Relatives often want to help by eliminating horrible activities from a sick person, such as driving a car instead of public transportation. But in the long run, it's not a good idea. You should rather encourage the person – and then get on the tram together.
Dr. Phil. Batya is light professional psychologist for psychotherapy in Zurich.
Many universities have psychological counseling services that can help you in an acute case. More information and addresses of contact points and therapists can be found at the Swiss Society for Anxiety and Depression (sgad.ch) and Angst-und Panikhilfe Schweiz (aphs.ch). SGAD and APHS also have hotlines that you can contact directly in case of emergency.