If you are reading this then I can make a fairly safe assumption that I don't need to explain what a panic attack is, or just how real the symptoms are. The good news is that controlling panic attacks is something that can be done by any anxiety sufferer. I suffered for many years with this disorder and throughout those years I learnt something very important, the ability to recognise the varying levels of anxiety that lead to the eventual panic attack. Understanding this allowed me to put to use a few techniques that will prevent a full blown attack.
You have probably heard the idea of breathing into a paper bag. You may have tried this and found it didn't work for you, or if it did work, it wasn't long before you were back into panic mode. State of mind plays a massive part here, if we could allow our minds to forget all about the fear of panic then we simply wouldn't have panic attacks. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done. Recognising the various stages of anxiety is the key to controlling them.
Mild anxiety is something that probably everybody has experienced at some time and would have no trouble recognising it. Maybe a slight tightening of the chest combined with feelings of deep worry. If this progresses into severe anxiety then the feelings intensify, the chest can tighten up more, you might find your breathing is very rapid and you get short of breath among various other symptoms. This is the point when a panic attack can emerge, the heart will race, you might have pains and numbness, palpitations and dizziness feeling like you may pass out. The fight or flight response kicks in and you are now into a full blown panic attack.
The worst symptoms of an attack are caused by breathing too much oxygen and not retaining enough carbon dioxide. This is the opposite of what many sufferers believe and the shortness of breath makes them attempt to breath in harder and faster to intake more oxygen, making the whole thing worse. What the paper bag trick does is allows us to breath back the carbon dioxide we have just breathed out, thus resetting the balance. So if it's that straightforward then why doesn't it always work for every sufferer?
The main reason is because balancing the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels will indeed calm the symptoms of a panic attack reasonably quickly but it won't so immediately calm the feelings associated with severe anxiety, i.e., the level of anxiety that comes just before the onset of a panic attack. Why not? Because at this level of anxiety the symptoms are caused by the release of too much adrenalin, which are very similar to the symptoms associated with a panic attack.
This is what makes it so difficult for many anxiety sufferers to control their panic attacks. It is very difficult to recognise them as different things when logical thinking is always telling you they are one and the same. To reiterate the paper bag example, a few breaths into it will balance out your carbon dioxide levels which in turn will prevent the effects of full blown panic. However, because you are still in a state of quite bad anxiety you immediately feel like it hasn't helped, your breathing may remain heavy or rapid and as a result, you enter into a perpetual cycle.
Once you understand the way anxiety progresses through these different stages you can train yourself to prevent a panic attack by monitoring your breathing (without the need for a paper bag). The fear of a panic attack is what brings on the attack in the first place, when you realise this you will stop fearing them. This will have the added benefit of calming the effects of severe anxiety and aid your recovery. Different methods are required to cure anxiety itself but this is much easier to live with than panic disorder. Curing panic disorder is the first stage to full recovery from anxiety, which at it's worst is nothing more than an unpleasant feeling that does not debilitate you. This is something you must continuously remind yourself. You can do it!