PANIC ATTACKS & AUTISM SPECTRUM
Adults on the autism spectrum may be prone to anxiety
or distress, which in extreme situations could lead to panic attacks.
Panic attacks are a terrifying experience where the body reacts
as if it is in immense danger, in a situation where most people
would not be afraid.
People of all ages can experience them, not only those with autism
syndrome. A small number of these people will go on to develop
panic disorder, whereby panic attacks are intense and occur frequently.
If left untreated, panic disorder can be a debilitating condition,
severely restricting the quality of life of the sufferer.
Panic attacks can occur at any time, repeatedly and without warning.
Mostly they last for a few minutes, but on occasion may last for
an hour or more. In between attacks, the sufferer often feels intense
anxiety, worrying when and where the next one will strike. Panic
attacks are accompanied by the unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety
including heart palpitations, hyperventilation, muscle pain, dizziness
and sweating, along with the fear that the attack will lead to death
or a total loss of control.
Panic attacks and adrenaline
People suffering panic attacks should understand
that the physical symptoms they experience with an attack are just
extreme versions of normal bodily responses to danger. Adrenaline
being released into the blood stream causes the heart to beat faster
and the breathing rate to increase in order to supply major muscles
with more oxygen. Blood is diverted away from non-essential areas
including the stomach, brain and hands (resulting in digestive problems,
dizziness and tingling or numbness in the hands). Pupils dilate
for more acute vision and this can cause difficulty with bright
lights or vision distortion. Sometimes it may appear that the walls
are folding in, or in extreme cases, inanimate objects may appear
During an attack the sufferer can become convinced that the symptoms
are caused by a major health problem such as a heart attack or brain
tumor, or that they are going crazy. This fear causes more adrenaline
to be released. Thus a worsening cycle can be generated.
Panic attacks can be accompanied by other conditions such as depression,
or they can give rise to the development of phobias. If a person
has a panic attack in the supermarket or while in an elevator and
then associates panic attacks with these activities, he or she may
start avoiding them. Some people’s lives become very restricted
and they avoid normal, everyday activities such as shopping, driving
or even leaving the house, or they will only do them when accompanied
by their partner or other trusted friend.
Treatments for panic attacks
There are a number of treatments for panic attacks
with research showing cognitive behavioral therapy to be best practice.
Some people choose to combine a number of treatment options.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
CBT is very effective. It teaches those with panic
attacks how to identify their anxiety and how to change anxiety
generating thoughts. The underlying belief with CBT is that it is
not so much events that are a cause of anxiety but what we think
Some of the anti-anxiety drugs are very potent
and some produce severe side effects in some people. While medication
can give short term relief to the symptoms it is important that
other strategies are used as well, including counseling and learning
more about the condition.
Some individuals report that the use of herbs,
vitamins and homeopathy can be effective when either used alone
or in conjunction with other treatments, although there is usually
the underlying issue of whether they have proved to be evidence-based
treatments or not.
Diet and exercise
Physical fitness and a good balanced diet are
essential for emotional well being. Many people find that doing
something physical helps reduced the “keyed up” feelings often associated
with anxiety. For some people, high caffeine foods such as coffee
and chocolate, can act as a trigger to panic attacks, probably because
caffeine can cause bodily changes such as an increase in heart rate
which can be misinterpreted as the start of a panic attack or a
heart condition; the fear this causes can then trigger a real panic
These can be useful to reduce stress or to help
you cope during an attack. There are numerous books and tapes which
can help you learn these techniques. Some of these are included
in the Handling
Stress fact sheet.
Don't Fight Panic!
When experiencing a panic attack remember the
It does not matter if you feel frightened, unreal or unsteady as
these feelings are just an exaggeration of normal bodily reactions.
The feelings are unpleasant and frightening, but not dangerous.
Face the symptoms, Don't run from them. Don't add to your panic
with scary thoughts about what is happening or where it might lead.
Allow time to pass and for the fear to fade away.
Use one or all of the following positive statements:
• “This feeling isn't comfortable or pleasant,
but I can accept it”
• “I can be anxious and still deal with the situation”
• “I’ll just let my body do its thing. This will pass”
• “This anxiety won’t hurt me, even if it doesn't feel good”.
to read the fact sheet on handling stress for adults on the autism spectrum.
for an interview with a specialist on stress and the autism spectrum.
Click here to go to the
home page to view the full range of autism fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
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who allowed reproduction on this site.