Panic Attacks Definition
- A sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety and fear.
- Your heart pounds and you can’t breathe.
- You feel dizzy and sick to your stomach.
- You feel endangered and unable to escape in a specific situation.
- Panic attacks can lead to panic disorder and other problems if left untreated.
- In many cases, panic attacks strike out without any warning.
- Often, there is no clear reason for the attack.
- A panic attack may be a one-time occurrence, but many people experience repeat episodes. For instance, crossing a bridge.
You may experience one or more panic attacks, yet be otherwise perfectly happy and healthy.Or your panic attacks may occur as part of another disorder, such as panic disorder, social phobia, or depression.
But regardless of the cause, panic attacks are treatable. There are many effective treatments you can use to deal with the symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Panic attacks often strike when you’re away from home, but they can happen anywhere and at any time.
You may have one while you’re in a store shopping, walking down the street, driving in your car, or sitting on the couch at home.
The signs and symptoms of a panic attack develop abruptly and usually reach their peak within 10 minutes. Most panic attacks end within 20 to 30 minutes, and they rarely last more than an hour.
A full-blown panic attack includes a combination of the following signs and symptoms:
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Heart palpitations or a racing heart
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Trembling or shaking
- Choking feeling
- Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or faint
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
Most of the symptoms of a panic attack are physical, and many times these symptoms are so severe that people think they’re having a heart attack.
Signs and symptoms of panic disorder
- Some people who’ve experienced panic attacks go on to develop panic disorder.
- Panic disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks, combined with major changes in behavior or persistent anxiety over having further attacks.
- Experience frequent, unexpected panic attacks that aren’t tied to a specific situation.
- Worry a lot about having another panic attack.
- Behaving differently because of the panic attacks, such as avoiding places where you’ve previously panicked.
While a single panic attack may only last a few minutes, the effects of the experience can leave a lasting imprint.
The memory of the intense fear and terror that you felt during the attacks can negatively impact your self-confidence and cause serious disruption to your everyday life.
Eventually, this leads to the following panic disorder symptoms:
- The feeling of anxious and tense.
- Phobic avoidance. You begin to avoid certain situations or environments. This avoidance may be based on the belief that the situation you’re avoiding caused a previous panic attack. Or you may avoid places where escape would be difficult or help would be unavailable if you had a panic attack.
- Because of these fears, you start avoiding more and more situations. For example, you might begin to avoid crowded places such as shopping malls.
- You might also avoid cars, airplanes, subways, and other forms of travel. In more severe cases, you might only feel safe at home.
Causes of panic attacks and panic disorder
- Although the exact causes of panic attacks and panic disorder are unclear, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There also appears to be a connection with major life transitions such as graduating from college and entering the workplace, getting married, and having a baby. Severe stress, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or job loss can also trigger a panic attack.
- Panic attacks can also be caused by medical conditions and other physical causes. If you’re suffering from symptoms of panic, it’s important to see a doctor and seek medical help.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy is generally viewed as the most effective form of treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on the thinking patterns and behaviors that are sustaining or triggering the panic attacks. It helps you look at your fears in a more realistic light.
For example, if you had a panic attack while driving, what is the worst thing that would really happen? While you might have to pull over to the side of the road, you are not likely to crash your car or have a heart attack. Once your learn that nothing truly disastrous is going to happen, the experience of panic becomes less terrifying.
Exposure therapy for panic attacks and panic disorder
In exposure therapy for panic disorder, you are exposed to the physical sensations of panic in a safe and controlled environment, giving you the opportunity to learn healthier ways of coping. You may be asked to hyperventilate, shake your head from side to side, or hold your breath. These different exercises cause sensations similar to the symptoms of panic. With each exposure, you become less afraid of these internal bodily sensations and feel a greater sense of control over your panic.
Overcoming panic and Exploring effective therapies
- If you’re suffering from panic disorder, therapy can teach you how to prevent and cope with panic attacks. Even a short course of treatment can help! Many people experience a drastic reduction in symptoms within 6 to 12 treatment sessions.
Medication treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder
- Medication can be used to temporarily control or reduce some of they symptoms of panic disorder. However, it doesn’t treat or resolve the problem. Medication be useful in severe cases, but it should not be the only treatment pursued. Medication is most effective when combined with other treatments, such as therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder.
The medications used for panic attacks and panic disorder include:
- Antidepressants are sometimes used in the treatment of panic attacks and panic disorder. However, it takes several weeks before they begin to work, so you have to take them continuously, not just during a panic attack.
- Benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety drugs that act very quickly (usually within 30 minutes to an hour). Taking them during a panic attack provides rapid relief of symptoms. However, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and have serious withdrawal symptoms, so they should be used with caution.
When it comes to panic attacks, professional treatment and therapy can make a big difference. But there are many things you can do to help yourself, too:
- Learn about panic. Simply knowing more about panic can go a long way towards relieving your distress. So read up on anxiety, panic disorder, and the fight-or-flight response experienced during a panic attack. You’ll learn that the sensations and feelings you have when you panic are normal and that you aren’t going crazy.
- Avoid smoking and caffeine. Smoking and caffeine can provoke panic attacks in people who are susceptible. As a result, it’s wise to avoid cigarettes, coffee, and other caffeinated beverages. Also be careful with medications that contain stimulants, such as diet pills and non-drowsy cold medications.
- Learn how to control your breathing. Hyperventilation brings on many sensations (such as lightheadedness and tightness of the chest) that occur during a panic attack.
- Deep breathing, on the other hand, can relieve the symptoms of panic. By learning to control your breathing, you develop a coping skill that you can use to calm yourself down when you begin to feel anxious.
- If you know how to control your breathing, you are also less likely to create the very sensations that you are afraid of.
- Practice relaxation techniques. When practiced regularly, activities such as yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation strengthen the body’s relaxation response – the opposite of the stress response involved in anxiety and panic. And not only do these relaxation practices promote relaxation, but they also increase feelings of joy and equanimity. So make time for them in your daily routine.