Throw away that paper bag… you CAN control panic attacks



21:49 GMT, 9 June 2012

Rapid breathing, chest pains, sweating, hot or cold flushes and numbness in the hands, feet or other body parts are a few of the terrifying symptoms of a panic attack.

One in ten of us will experience one at some point, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and many claim it feels as if they are about to die or ‘go mad’. But they can be overcome with some therapeutic exercises…

Art attack: Edvard Munch's famous The Scream was inspired by a panic attack suffered by the artist

Art attack: Edvard Munch's famous The Scream was inspired by a panic attack suffered by the artist


Although it’s not known why some suffer panic attacks, experts believe they are the result of a ‘fight or flight’ response in which the body is flooded with the stress hormone adrenaline, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure.

This is a useful physical response to danger as it readies the body for action. In a panic attack, however, the onset is abrupt with no obvious trigger.

Lasting about 20 minutes, they can occur sporadically, and for no reason, but are a symptom of anxiety disorder, a mental health condition characterised by irrational overwhelming feelings of tension, uncertainty and fear.


A form of counselling known as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is accepted to be the gold standard of treatment for anxiety, and effective for 70 to 90 per cent of patients.

It can reduce panic attacks through control of the earliest symptoms, or make them disappear instantly, depending on the severity.

Unlike other talking therapies, such as psychotherapy, CBT focuses on the difficulties a person is experiencing now rather than delving into their past, encouraging them to identify and take control of thought processes that trigger attacks.

Hormone overload: Experts believe panic attacks are the result of a 'fight or flight' response

Hormone overload: Experts believe panic attacks are the result of a 'fight or flight' response


Claire Taylor, a psychotherapist and CBT specialist, says there are many CBT techniques you can try at home to alleviate panic attacks. The first stage is identifying and understanding the nature of the problem.

‘Panic attacks can be linked to a trauma – from bereavement or bullying to a one-off incident,’ she says.

‘I treated a rugby star who suffered an asthma attack in a scrum that left him in hospital. He became so scared of having another attack in that situation that he suffered panic attacks when thinking about rugby – irrational but it was ruining his life.

‘After an attack, the sufferer should step back and analyse what happened, looking at it in a positive way. For the rugby player this meant focusing on how many hundreds of times he’d been in a scrum and not had an asthma attack. It’s about making the problem smaller in your own head.’


Most people get warning signs that an attack is about to happen, including a racing heart, disorientation and a sense of needing to get out of wherever they are.

According to Taylor, controlled breathing is key at this point. A normal breathing rate for an adult at rest is eight to 16 breaths per minute. But in a state of heightened anxiety, we take rapid, deep breaths.

This is sometimes called hyperventilating and leads to low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which causes many of the symptoms of a panic attack.

‘Sufferers should place one hand on their chest and one on their stomach,’ says Taylor. ‘As they breathe in, the chest should stay still while the stomach is pushed out, counting slowly to exhale for a couple of counts longer than they inhale.’


‘When an attack happens, it’s important to control your thoughts immediately,’ says Taylor. ‘Repeat a simple mantra to yourself such as, “My heart will stop racing, I’m not going to die, I can overcome this.” ’


Between attacks, keeping a mood and thought diary aids a shift to positive thinking.

‘Write a list of people, things or memories that make you happy. It could be a place that holds lovely memories where you felt in control. Read this list morning and night.

'The more positive energy you generate, the less likely you are to have a panic attack.’


Nicola Turner, a clinical psychologist specialising in CBT, says there are also techniques that can reduce the risk of an attack.

‘Stress can cause panic attacks and the fear of having another attack can become greater than the anxiety itself, so relaxation is key,’ she says. ‘Be aware of tension in your body.’

‘Many withdraw socially as a result of attacks, avoiding places where they’ve suffered one before while arming themselves with ‘‘crutches’’ should an attack happen again, such as a paper bag to blow into. I encourage them to remove these crutches and return to the place of an attack, concentrating on their breathing and positive affirmations to increase confidence.’


Even when symptoms or attacks are under control, you should never take your eye off the ball, according to Nicky Lidbetter, a clinician and CEO of charity Anxiety UK.

‘I’ve seen so many abandon the CBT techniques once they’ve overcome their panic attacks, only for the problem to return,’ she says.

‘Lifestyle adjustments are also vital. Too much caffeine and sugar in the diet creates unstable blood sugar which can cause a panic attack.

Adopting a balanced diet is very powerful, as is exercise to use up adrenaline and release mood-enhancing endorphins and increase self-esteem – a lack of which is at the core of many anxiety disorders.’