Let’s Talk About Panic Attacks

In a previous article, I discussed what a panic attack feels like, so now let’s dig a little deeper. Anyone who has endured a panic attack knows that the symptoms are sudden, frightening, and difficult to manage. Until people understand what they are, they are often mistaken for heart attacks.

They often hit with no warning, which is part of what makes them so scary. They can swoop in from out of nowhere, with no oncoming symptoms. They are sudden and include a wide range of physical and emotional symptoms, which is what makes them feel overwhelming and difficult to manage. People can have panic attacks just about anywhere, even when they appear perfectly calm just moments before the attack.

What does a panic attack look like?
Panic attacks look different for everyone so from an outside viewpoint, it can be difficult to know what is going on. For some, they begin hyperventilating and appear panicked. For others, it may be completely internal to where you wouldn’t know it was happening unless they say something. Still others have such severe panic attacks that they have a fixed gaze, rigid posture and become non responsive in a comatose-like state.

What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

    • Chest pain
    • Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
    • A feeling of choking
    • Trembling
    • Dizziness
    • Nausea
    • Abdominal distress
    • Shortness of breath
    • Sweating
    • Feeling like your limbs are going numb or tingling
    • Fear of dying
    • Fear of losing control
    • Intrusive, highly anxious thoughts
    • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)

Some people experience what is referred to as limited-symptom panic attacks, which are similar to full-blown panic attacks but consist of fewer than four symptoms.

Fight or Flight Mode
To the person having a panic attack, it can feel like it is lasting an eternity and is often accompanied by thoughts of, “I’m dying,” or “this is never going to end.” In truth, your body is unable to sustain panic attacks for too long because the brain goes into fight or flight mode.

Typically, panic attacks reach their peak within ten minutes and resolve completely within thirty minutes. They rarely last more than an hour. That thirty-minute period is so physically and emotionally overwhelming, however, that it requires a significant recovery period afterwards.

Cause of Panic Attacks
Unfortunately, there are no clear causes of panic attack. Studies show that there can be a genetic predisposition to them, but not every person with anxiety has them.

Panic attacks are also associated with major life transitions, severe, and certain medical conditions. They can also be triggered by stimulant use, including caffeine, and withdrawal from medication.

Anticipation of a Panic Attack can be Triggering
It is not uncommon for the anticipation of a panic attack to actually trigger a panic attack. Due to intensity and suddenness of the attack, people are often anxious about having another one. Anticipatory anxiety can make ordinary outings, like grocery shopping, feel overwhelming due to intrusive thoughts about the difficulty of finding an escape route or getting caught in a crowd.

Some Common Coping Strategies:

    •Deep breathing exercises: When you feel short of breath, do the box breathing technique which is done in counts of 4. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds. Continue until breathing regulates.
    • Coping statements
    • Distraction
    • Grounding: Use grounding techniques, such as using holding ice, touching items nearby and challenging yourself to think of the specific color, moving, listening to surroundings, use your senses.

For more information on therapeutic options and other ways to help manage and reduce panic and anxiety, contact us now.