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Over the last couple of years, the number of people diagnosed with Anxiety and / or Panic Attacks has rocketed. With it has come a huge increase in the prescription of conventional mediations, particularly while access to Psychotherapy, Counselling, CBT and other talking therapies was drastically curtailed. 
 
At the same time, there’s also been a noticeable increase in the number of people suffering Heart Attacks. Although, having said that, it’s thought these figures are likely to be on the low side as many people simply don’t realise what’s happening. Or confuse it for something else, most commonly indigestion or a Panic Attack. 
 
 
So, this week, we’re going to take a look at Anxiety and Panic Attacks. What they look and feel like. How they differ from a Heart Attack. 
 
However, before we go any further, if you’re in ANY doubt it’s better to err on the side of caution and seek urgent medical attention. And the emphasis here is on urgent, as the first hour following a Heart Attack or Stroke is known as the “golden hour” for very good reason… 
 
Let’s start with Anxiety, which we’ve all experienced from time to time. It’s usually described as a feeling of apprehension – or dread – and may be accompanied by a myriad of physical symptoms. Palpitations, chest tightness / pain, shallow / rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach, dizziness, numbness, tingling, muscle tightness, a feeling of spaciness, buzzing in the ears. Put another way, they’re all the emergency “fight or flight” responses fuelled by adrenaline… 
 
Anxiety may be about a specific particular person or event, building in anticipation of it and then subsiding afterwards. Alternatively, it may be more of a general uneasiness, continuing on an ongoing basis. Sometimes, it’s a bit of both, with a feeling of ongoing uneasiness interspersed with periods of more intense Anxiety. 
 
Panic Attacks are one step on from Anxiety – and what starts as Anxiety can build into a Panic Attack. Alternatively, a Panic Attack can come out of the blue, with no feeling of Anxiety beforehand. Not surprisingly, it’s the ones that come out of the blue which can really frighten people, as there was no sign of anything untoward beforehand. 
 
A big difference between Anxiety and a Panic Attack is onset. Anxiety tends to build up over time, whereas a Panic Attack comes on suddenly AND is accompanied by a feeling of intense fear or doom. It may have a specific trigger or seem to come from nowhere. We’ve heard it described as feeling as if the world is closing in and death is imminent. 
 
Like Anxiety, all the symptoms are fuelled by adrenaline. However, rather than being about something which may happen in the future, Panic Attacks are about being ready for fight or flight NOW. It feels as though the life or death situation is right now. 
 
With a Panic Attack putting the body in emergency “fight or flight” mode – shutting down non essential functions, while increasing the heart rate and breathing ready for physical action – it’s easy to see why symptoms can be very similar to those of a Heart Attack. 
 
Panic Attacks tend to come on suddenly, with a sense of impending doom that’s completely out of proportion to the situation the person finds themselves in. They last for a relatively short period of time, although it certainly doesn’t feel it to the person concerned or those around them. Usually, they peak within 10 minutes and subside within 30 minutes. If there’s Chest pain – and there may not be – it tends to be in a small area in the centre of the Chest. Usually, it’s a sharp or stabbing pain, lasting for only a few seconds at a time. Alongside this there may also be palpitations, hyperventilation, nausea, sweating, trembling or dizziness. 
 
By contrast, Heart Attacks tend to build in intensity over a period of time. They usually start with a feeling of heaviness, pressure or fullness in the centre of the Chest. This builds over a few minutes, both in intensity and, as blood flow to the Heart is interrupted, radiates out across the Chest, Arms, Shoulders, Neck, Throat and Jaw. The pain is ongoing and, like Panic Attacks, there may also be nausea, hyperventilation, cold sweat, dizziness or trembling. In addition, there’s a feeling of great tiredness and / or weakness. 
 
So, the differences can be summed up as: 
 
Pain onset and intensity. The Chest pain with a Heart Attack starts as a feeling of pressure in the centre of Chest and then gradually increases. By contrast, in a Panic Attack, the pain remains in a small area in the centre of the Chest and tends to be sharp or stabbing, lasting for a few seconds before abating, then coming again. 
 
Pain location. In a Heart Attack, the pain radiates out from the centre of the Chest and can spread to the Arms, Abdomen, Back, Shoulder, Neck, Throat and Jaw. During a Panic Attack, the pain remains in a small area in the centre of the Chest. 
 
However, as always, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and seek urgent medical attention if you are concerned. 
 
So, what can you do at home to help with Anxiety or Panic Attacks? 
 
Well, with them both being driven by the “fight or flight” response, it’s all about lowering adrenaline levels. The simplest way to do this is to focus on your breathing. Take a slow and deep breath in for a count of two, hold it for two and then slowly let it out for two. Hold it for another two and keep going until you feel calmer. To start with this may feel like very hard work but it quickly gets easier. 
 
Then, as you start to feel calmer, increase the count for each section to three and then four. If you find this difficult, you can breathe slowly and deeply into a brown paper bag or your cupped hands. Both of these also help to bring your breathing under control, just keep going until you feel calmer. 
 
Just as important is focussing on your breathing is taking back control of your thoughts from the Little Monster in your head. And, while we may not realise it, this is essentially what Anxiety or a Panic Attack are all about. The little Monster in your Head having hijacked your thinking. Using all your creative and imaginative powers in completely the wrong direction. So, as soon as you start to take back control of your thinking, his power is lost and you feel calmer. 
 
The million dollar question is how to do this. Well, the good news is that it only takes one conscious thought to start taking back control of your head and get you heading in the right direction. Simply notice something – anything, however small – in your surroundings. Perhaps, a picture on the wall or something outside the window. Really focus on it, notice every small detail. The colours or brush strokes on the picture, the leaves on the tree outside the window, the clouds in the sky. This instantly takes your thinking off auto pilot – with the Little Monster in your Head in charge at the helm – and puts you back in control. You’ll instantly feel better and able to react to the situation in a more controlled and logical way. 
 
Once you’re feeling calmer give yourself time to recover. Do a little cloud watching or pottering outside to help recharge your batteries, as well as grounding you in the here and now. Anxiety and Panic Attacks are both fuelled by the imagination being in overdrive. About what may happen in the future, NOT what is happening right now. So, regular relaxation, meditation and mindfulness will all help prevent recurrences in the future. 
 
As always, the choice is yours. 
 
 
 
Photograph by unknown author 
 
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