Panic Attacks and Panic Disorders

October 7, 2020
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Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder: What You Need to Know

Panic attacks may sound scary, and experiencing them for the first time is definitely unsettling, but they are more common than you think.

What Are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack

A panic attack can come on suddenly and doesn’t necessarily need a trigger. They can happen anywhere, at a store, while walking, or even while sitting down or sleeping. The symptoms peak in the first ten minutes and the attack might last about twenty to thirty minutes, and rarely longer than an hour.

A person who is experiencing a panic attack may have some, or all, of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort Feeling like they are choking
  • Feeling detached from surroundings
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilating Heart palpitations or racing heart
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Fear of dying
  • Feel like they are losing control or going crazy
  • Feeling faint, dizzy, or lightheaded
  • Hot flashes
  • Cold flashes
  • Nausea or upset stomach
  • Numbness or tingling sensations

Could it be a Heart Attack?

Many people who are having a panic attack think they are actually having a heart attack, and will often go to the emergency room to get it checked out. Get checked out if you have difficulty breathing, an elevated heart rate, and chest pain, but keep in mind that it’s more common to overlook a panic attack as the cause, rather than overlook a heart attack.

What is a Panic Disorder?

You can have a single panic attack, or even two, and be perfectly healthy and happy with your life, but sometimes the panic attacks keep happening.

A person who has a panic disorder may have the following symptoms:

  • Frequent, unexpected panic attacks without triggers
  • Feel negatively impacted when remembering the intense feelings of the panic attack
  • Lower self-confidence
  • Feel like their everyday life is disrupted because of the attacks
  • Worry about another attack
  • Behave differently because of the attacks, like avoiding places or situations where the attacks occurred

After several recurrent panic attacks, these symptoms may also appear: Phobic avoidance, or avoiding situations and places where you may have had a panic attack in the past, or places where getting away/getting help could be difficult. Phobic avoidance can develop into agoraphobia.

Anticipatory anxiety, constantly feeling fearful, tense, or anxious even in between your panic attacks. This symptom can be disabling.

What Causes a Panic Attack?

We don’t know exactly what causes panic attacks, they can be brought on by major life transitions like marriage or a new baby, or by severe stress like in the case of a divorce, or the loss of a loved one. Panic attacks also seem to run in families. Foods and drinks that might provoke panic attacks are sugary foods, caffeine, alcohol, or certain medications. Panic attacks can be caused by medical conditions like hyperthyroidism, low blood sugar, mitral valve prolapse. Using stimulants like caffeine, cocaine, or amphetamines, or experiencing withdrawals from medication may also bring on a panic attack.

How Do You Treat Panic Attacks or Panic Disorders?

While medications, like benzodiazepines or antidepressants, can bring short term relief from the symptoms of panic disorders, panic attacks, or agoraphobia, they do not actually treat the conditions.

Different types of psychotherapy have been shown to be the most effective type of treatment. A therapist may use exposure therapy to help you experience the sensations of a panic attack in a safe environment or to reintroduce places you have been avoiding, or they may use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) which helps you to change any thinking patterns or behaviors that might make your panic worse. Even short term psychotherapy can help tremendously with panic attacks or disorders.

Causes of ADHD

Download The Panic Attacks Fact Sheet


Download The Panic Disorders Fact Sheet


What Can You Do Yourself?

  • Learn about panic attacks, anxiety, panic disorder, or the fight-or-flight response. Knowing that what you feel during a panic attack is simply your body’s way of keeping you safe can help you not feel as if you are going crazy.
  • Avoid becoming isolated. Reach out to people you know, or find ways to make new friends, and try to connect face-to-face.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Get regular exercise. Walking, swimming, dancing, and running are especially good.
  • Learn to control your breathing. Deep breathing can relieve the symptoms of a panic attack, whereas hyperventilating will make your chest feel tight and your headlight.
  • Avoid stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, smoking, or non-drowsy cold medicine.

How To Help Someone Who is Having a Panic Attack

It can be scary to watch someone have a panic attack, but helping someone through a panic attack is just a matter of knowing what to do:

  • Stay calm.
  • Lead your friend to a quiet place where they can sit.
  • Tell them to take slow, deep breaths.
  • Do something physical together with your friend, like stomping your feet or raising your arms.
  • Ask your friend to name five things around them, or describe the shape or color of something they can see.
  • Reassure your friend after the attack, and encourage them to talk to a doctor.

How Can We Help?

Isolated panic attacks do not necessarily mean you have a panic disorder, but even if you do, the treatment of these disorders is highly successful and people with panic attacks and panic disorders can enjoy their lives to the fullest.