Understanding Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are episodes in which the sufferer experiences a dramatic spike in heart rate and anxiety, accompanied by trembling and difficulty breathing. Such episodes sometimes occur because a patient has a Generalized Anxiety Disorder; however, they can also happen in patients with no other mental health disorder.

These attacks typically last for 10 minutes. In some cases, the individual may only have one episode their entire life. Those who have panic attacks on a regular basis may meet the diagnostic criteria for a panic disorder.

Panic attacks are often preceded by anxiety that slowly ramps up. After a panic attack, the individual can feel physically and emotionally exhausted. Stress, too, can occur in the aftermath, as the patient worries that an attack may happen again.

No External Cause

The distinguishing characteristic of panic attacks is that they occur without an external trigger. As an example, a person who gets mugged one night may experience physical symptoms similar to those in a panic attack; a person who experiences an actual panic attack, however, has no such clear, external cause.

This can make the person with panic attacks seem hysterical or dramatic to others. This type of thinking is incorrect and can be dangerous for the patient. The symptoms of a panic attack are very real and very serious for the person experiencing them, and individuals with panic attacks should be encouraged to seek out treatment.

The Statistics

  • Panic attacks happen to 1 in 75 people at least once
  • One million Americans have a panic attack every month
  • A third of panic attack sufferers also have agoraphobia
  • 4 out of 10 people with panic disorder also have depression

The Symptoms of a Panic AttackĀ 

Panic attack symptoms can include:

  • Feeling as if you are losing control
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Experiencing chest pain
  • Feeling weak
  • Increased heart rate
  • Having a sense of impending doom
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Tingling in the limbs
  • Excessive sweating

Sometimes a panic attack may feel like a heart attack. If you are experiencing symptoms similar to a heart attack and are unclear if you are having a panic attack or heart attack, you should contact 911 immediately.

Addressing Panic Attacks

The best way to stop panic attacks is to work in partnership with a mental health professional. There are some techniques, however, that you can use on your own in between sessions or until you begin treatment.

Breathing Exercise

Breathing exercises can help calm the body and mind. If you feel anxiety building up, focus in on your breathing and close your eyes. Center your mind on your breathing, following your breath as it moves in and out. This repetition, along with the deep breathing, can help soothe the mind.

Acknowledge the Attack Is Happening

Acknowledging that you are having a panic attack and naming it can help neutralize its power. If you feel a panic attack beginning, try this mental exercise to try to lessen its intensity.

Stay Grounded

Remaining grounded during a panic attack is hard to do, but it can help lessen some symptoms. The best thing to do is ground yourself through your senses and how they connect to the outside world. Track different sensations, such as a smell or a sound, to ground you in what is around you in the moment.

Muscle Relaxation

Beginning with your toes and working your way up, focus in on relaxing your muscles. You can flex each muscle briefly then exhale as you release the muscle and let it relax.

Anxiety Attack or a Panic Attack?

An anxiety attack may seem very much like a panic attack, but it is different in one critical way– an anxiety attack has an external stimulus. Once that stimulus is gone, the anxiety attack stops. There are no external triggers in a panic attack.