A panic attack can come on suddenly and leave you feeling terrified and as if you might die. It is a scary event for those that experience random panic attacks. Have you or someone you love felt a sudden sense of fear or dread followed by physical sensations of panic? What causes these episodes and what can you do to find relief during one? Panic attack treatment is available, but first, we need to clarify what exactly a panic attack is and how it differs from an anxiety attack.
What is a Panic Attack?Some people never experience a true panic attack while others may have them once or twice a week. A panic attack is the sudden onset of intense fear with no known triggers. For example, if a bear were chasing you, then it would make sense for your body to initiate panic symptoms. However, with panic attacks, there are no visible threats. Nevertheless, these attacks result in physical sensations as they activate your body’s hormonal “fight-or-flight” response.
As the region of your brain that controls your reaction during a threat activates, it sends signals to release more adrenaline into your bloodstream, thus raising your heart rate so you can react to the “threat.” The panic attack reactions typically only last ten minutes or so, although when you are in the middle of one, it may seem longer.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a person experiencing a panic attack will exhibit at least four of these symptoms:
- Rapid heart rate, palpitations, or a sensation of a pounding heart
- Feeling like your choking or difficulty swallowing
- Shaking or trembling
- Feeling like you can’t breathe, shortness of breath, or chest tightness
- Chest pain
- Nausea or gastroenterological issues
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling like you might faint
- Chills or hot flashes that spread over your body
- Numbness and/or tingling in the face, arms, hands, or legs
- You suddenly feel like you can’t control the situation
- You feel like you might be dying
- You may feel as if you are no longer “anchored” to this world, depersonalization, or detachment
Researchers are still investigating what initially triggers a panic attack. Some people can be highly anxious about something and experience a panic attack. But for many people, these sudden episodes appear out of the blue while they are relaxing, watching television, or reading a book. This is one of the reasons sufferers can go long periods of time before a proper diagnosis to receive panic attack help.
If the individual is unaware that what they are experiencing is a panic attack, they may feel as if they are having a heart attack from the heart palpitations or a stroke due to the numbness or tingles from their arm and face.
What is the Difference Between Anxiety and Panic Attacks?
Some mental health disorders can result in panic attacks. If someone suffers from depression and social anxiety, they may have a panic attack if forced to leave the safety of their home. Some Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) patients have been known to have a panic attack when they have been unable to complete a certain task or routine.
Panic attacks can also be brought on by major life changes. Divorce, the death of a loved one, the estrangement from an adult child, the birth of a baby, or a move to a new city can create enough inner turmoil and stress that it results in panic attacks. The person may not be able to pinpoint the exact reason; however, the brain reacts to the new perceived “threat.”
There are differences between an anxiety attack and a panic attack. Panic attacks come on suddenly without warning or a trigger. Anxiety attacks are the result of a perceived threat. With an anxiety attack, you may feel anxious long before any physical symptoms. Many people who have panic attacks fear the physical symptoms more than they do the anxious feelings.
Anxiety tends to last for a long period of time and the attacks can range from mild to severe. Panic attacks are sudden, and physical symptoms can be severe. Some people who have experienced a panic attack before may develop anxiety as a result of the fear they felt from the physical symptoms. This can result in an anxiety attack that can eventually lead to a full-blown panic attack.
Some people only exhibit a few of the panic attack symptoms. These are known as a limited-symptom panic attack. People report feeling short of breath as the most common symptom.
What You Can Do During a Panic Attack
One of the physical sensations people sometimes feel with a panic attack is detachment from themselves as if they are no longer anchored here. Or, they feel as if they have lost touch with reality. During a panic attack, it is important to “ground” yourself back into your surroundings.
You will need to acknowledge that you are having a panic attack. This will help you to fight off the sense of dread and danger. Try sitting someplace quiet where you can close your eyes and take deep breaths. During a panic attack, people tend to take shallow breaths which can lead to hyperventilating.
Use grounding techniques that incorporate your five senses. You can use grounding with this easy to remember list:
- Look around you and focus onfivethings in the room
- Find four items you can touch.
- Identifythree things you hear.
- Pinpointtwo things you smell.
- Recognizeone thing you can taste.
Some people find drinking or splashing cold water on their face helps to calm them down and bring them back to the present moment.
You can also practice mindful breathing. Taking care to breathe slowly and deeply, you can visualize a safe place, a place you love. Concentrate on your five senses in that space. If you were to imagine the beach, what would you see, touch, hear, smell, and taste?
panic attack treatmentTry different approaches during a panic attack. Only you will know what gives you panic attack relief and it might be different from other people’s experiences. Some people report that instead of sitting down during an attack, they concentrate on a task. For example, they may fold laundry while engaging their five senses. By concentrating on the chore, they take away the power that fear holds over them.
Finding Panic Attack Treatment
If you feel you have had a panic attack or you are afraid you will have another one, contact your primary care physician to discuss panic attack treatment options. Panic disorder, which can result from the anxiety induced from experiencing a severe panic attack and then worrying about another frightening episode, is treatable.
Sometimes focusing on the fear of having another attack can bring on the panic attack itself. Your physician can help rule out other conditions while preventing the stress from panic disorder from causing more physical harm.
The doctor may prescribe you medication to help reduce the feelings of anxiety and stress. These medications are typically either SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) or SNRIs (serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors).
SSRIs increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain and include sertraline (Zoloft) and paroxetine (Paxil). Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters that make you feel happy. SNRIs increase both serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain by blocking the reabsorption of both neurotransmitters. SNRIs include venlafaxine (Effexor).
In extreme cases, the doctor may prescribe a medication from the class of benzodiazepines such as clonazepam for short-term use. Benzodiazepines are central nervous depressant medications that can lead to prescription drug dependence and should be used sparingly.
To manage the symptoms from panic attacks and anxiety, consider cutting back on caffeine. Caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and perhaps trigger another panic attack. Try incorporating exercise and a healthy diet into your lifestyle to relieve some of the stress. Even if you are having trouble pinpointing the exact reason for your panic attacks, reducing stress in your life will benefit you physically, mentally, and emotionally.
If you find you need help with panic attack treatment, speak to a mental health care professional such as a therapist. A therapist can help you analyze why you believe you may be having these attacks. Together, you can find the right panic attack treatment and work on ways to make lifestyle changes that will reduce your anxiety and stress.
“Pensive”, Courtesy of Xusenru, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Lost in the Fog”, Courtesy of Free-Photos, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Freaking Out”, Courtesy of Lechenie-Narkomanii, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Praying Woman”, Courtesy of Pexels, Pixabay.com, CC0 License