Panic attacks is a sudden overwhelming feeling of acute and disabling anxiety. It is an intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause.
A panic attack can happen anywhere, at any time. You may feel terrified and overwhelmed, even though you’re not in any danger. An attack usually passes in 5-10 minutes, but it can linger for hours. It can feel like you’re having a heart attack or a stroke. So people with panic attacks often wind up in the emergency room for evaluation.
If this kind of random event has happened to you at least twice, and you constantly worry and change your routine to keep from having one, you might have panic disorder — a type of anxiety disorder. If left untreated, panic disorder can sometimes lead to agoraphobia, an intense fear of being outside or in enclosed spaces.
This disorder reflects the experience of sudden panic symptoms (generally out of the blue, without specific triggers) in combination with persistent, lingering worry that panic symptoms will return and fear of those panic symptoms.
Panic disorder is characterized by repeated panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden rush of strong fear or discomfort that is accompanied by a cluster of physical and cognitive symptoms, including heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, trembling, and fears of dying, going crazy, or losing control.
Is there a difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack?
Anxiety is a mental health condition that can cause feelings of worry, fear, or tension. For some people, anxiety can also cause panic attacks and extreme physical symptoms, like chest pain.
An anxiety attack, people may feel fearful, apprehensive, may feel their heart racing or feel short of breath, but it’s very short lived, and when the stressor goes away, so does the anxiety attack. Panic attack on the other hand doesn’t come in reaction to a stressor. It’s unprovoked and unpredictable.
Both panic and anxiety can involve fear, a pounding or racing heart, lightheadedness, chest pain, difficulty breathing, and irrational thoughts. However, in a panic attack, these are far more severe. Panic attack symptoms usually peak within ten minutes and usually last about half an hour.
Recurrent expected or unexpected panic attacks AND one or more of the following symptoms for at least one month:
- Pounding heart
- Feeling of weakness
- Tingling or numbness in hands
- Feeling flushed
- Sense of unreality
- Feeling of loss of control or losing one’s mind
- Fear of dying or something physically wrong (e.g., heart attack, stroke)
- Persistent concern about the consequences of the attacks (e.g. “going crazy”, heart attack) or fears of having additional attacks
- A significant change in behavior related to attacks (e.g. avoiding exercise)
- Duration of panic attacks: a few minutes to 10 minutes (rarely last longer than 1 hour)
It is important that these symptoms are not better accounted for by another disorder (e.g. panic attacks only in social settings). The symptoms also cannot be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
It’s not known what causes panic attacks or panic disorder, but these factors may play a role:
- Major stress
- Temperament that is more sensitive to stress or prone to negative emotions
- Certain changes in the way parts of your brain function
Panic attacks may come on suddenly and without warning at first, but over time, they’re usually triggered by certain situations.
Coping Strategies & Resources for Supporting Someone with Panic Disorder
Please note: Turning to drugs or alcohol to try to deal with panic disorder in turn can make the symptoms worse.
SUPPLEMENTS: By using natural remedies and vitamins for anxiety and panic attacks, you can treat the underlying root cause of these mood disorders and get lasting relief.
VITAMIN B COMPLEX: Helpful vitamins for anxiety can be a number of B vitamins. The B vitamin deficiencies most often linked to panic attacks, anxiety and depression are B6, B9, and B12. B-complex supplements usually pack all eight B vitamins into one pill. B vitamins are water-soluble, which means your body does not store them. For this reason, your diet must supply them each day. It is best to supplement with one very good Vitamin B complex tablet per day. If you can buy a sustained release product – they release the vitamin over a number of hours for maximum absorption.
One of the scariest early experiences in panic disorder is having a panic attack and not knowing what is happening to your body. By learning more about panic attacks and panic disorder, you can start to label and identify the experience that you are having. Although the experience of panic attacks is very distressing, having a panic attack will not cause you to die or to completely lose control and they do not mean that you are going crazy. Sometimes, just knowing what is going on can help people to feel better. For example, the next time you have a panic attack, you can tell yourself “this is anxiety. I have felt this before and I was okay.”
This may sound counter-intuitive but trying to accept one’s emotional experience can be very helpful during panic attacks. Remind yourself that anxiety is like a wave, what goes up must come down. Fighting against the experience engages the “fear of fear” cycle that can make you feel even worse. If you notice panic symptoms creeping up, label your experience and you remind yourself, “I will be okay. This will pass in time.” Accepting your experience, rather than fighting against it, will likely help your panic symptoms reduce more quickly and will feel easier along the way.
Mindfulness involves spending time focusing on the present moment and using a nonjudgmental stance (things are not good or bad, they just are). This may sound straightforward but it can be tricky as our mind often wanders. Try to spend some time each day focusing on a single activity for 10 minutes. For example, focus on the experience of breathing: noticing the physical sensations that you have, the sound of your breath, the feeling of your chest rising and falling as you breathe, the feeling of air entering and leaving your lungs, etc. Try your best to keep your mind focused on these sensations. If you notice your mind wandering, gently redirect it back to the exercise. Engaging in these exercises on a regular basis can help you to feel emotionally centered. Check out websites, apps, and books for more information on mindfulness and guided mindfulness exercises.
Approach, Don’t Avoid
Try your best not to avoid or push away feelings of panic. Instead, breathe into the experience and practice your acceptance (as described above). Avoiding situations or bodily sensations associated with panic attacks may seem helpful in the short-term because it helps to immediately make our anxiety decrease. But in the long-term, it is not helpful because it teaches our brains that those physical sensations were a “true alarm” or something to really be afraid of. Instead, if we approach the sensations and situations that make us anxious, perhaps a little bit at a time, we can rewire our brains over time to learn that these things are not so scary after all. By repeating this approach process over and over, you can begin to see that these physical sensations you are having are not so scary and this can help reduce panic symptoms in the future or at least make them much more manageable in the moment. Remember the saying, “avoidance is anxiety’s best friend” because the more we avoid, the more anxious we tend to feel. So, try out approaching the things that make you anxious with an “I can do this!” attitude.
You can text chat to an online facilitator on the MOBIEG Helpline if you need more help. We are online Sundays: 18h00 – 20h00; Mondays – Thursdays: 19h00 – 21h00. Just click on LIVE CHAT to connect with a counselor.