According to the medical experts, a panic attack is defined as an intense, sudden episode of fear that triggers significant physical reactions- even though there’s no real danger. A panic attack can be quite frightening for the person who is experiencing it. Often, individuals report feeling like they’re out of control, having a heart issue, or- in severe cases- even report feeling as if they are dying.
Most people will only experience a couple of panic attacks during their lifetime, and then the problem will dissipate when the triggering situation comes to an end. However, there are some individuals who have them repeatedly and are always worrying when the next one is coming. This is defined as panic disorder.
While a panic attack isn’t life-threatening, they can have a significant impact on your overall quality of life. However, there is some hope- there are treatments, both self-help and medical intervention treatments than can help you with your panic attacks.
Signs and Symptoms of a Panic Attack
The signs/symptoms of a panic attack will typically appear quickly and peak within approximately 10 to 30 minutes. In some very rare cases, they will last for up to an hour. An individual can experience a panic attack at any time and anywhere. You may have one when you’re driving down the road, shopping in a store, or even sitting at home, relaxing.
Following are some of the symptoms of a panic attack:
- Hyperventilation/shortness of breath
- Racing heart/heart palpitations
- Dizziness/light-headedness/faint feeling
- Chest discomfort/pain
- Nausea/upset stomach
- Feeling like you’re choking
- Feeling detached from your surroundings
- Hot/cold flashes
- Fear of losing control, going crazy, or dying
Common causes of Panic Attacks/Panic Disorder
While medical experts have not been able to determine the exact cause of panic attacks and panic disorder, it has been determined that these attacks are hereditary. In addition, there seem to be other connections with major life transitions such as graduating high school or college and entering the workforce, getting married, losing a job, getting a divorce, having a baby, or losing a loved one can be a trigger for a panic attack.
Experts also tell us that panic attacks can stem from underlying medical conditions or other physical ailments. If you are having panic attacks, it’s important that you discuss them with your doctor and rule out the following:
- Mitral valve prolapse
- Medication/substance withdrawal
- Use of stimulants
Self-Treatment Options to Cope with Panic Attacks
Though you feel completely out of control and powerless when a panic attack strikes, you must understand that there are some things you can do to help yourself cope. In this section, we’ll take a look at some things you can do to overcome panic and anxiety. The truth is, just knowing more about it can help resolve an issue. Learn more about anxiety in general, especially the fight-or-flight response that individual’s experience. This will help you see that the things you’re experiencing are completely normal- you’re not losing your mind.
Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
All of these substances have the ability to provoke panic attacks. If you need help quitting these, reach out to someone who can help you. In addition, you’ll want to use caution when using medications that are stimulants, such as non-drowsy cold meds and diet pills.
Learn breath control
There are many sensations that accompany hyperventilation, such as tightness of the chest and lightheadedness. Deep breathing can help counteract these symptoms. Once you learn to control your breathing, you can calm yourself when you start getting worked up into a panic attack. Plus, if you know breath control, you’re less likely to create a sensation that you’re scared of.
Practice relaxation techniques
When you practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga, you strengthen your body’s relaxation response, which counteracts the body’s stress response. In addition to helping you relax, these activities also increase feelings of equanimity and joy.
Connect with family and friends
When you feel isolated, symptoms of anxiety can become worse. Therefore, you must reach out to your family and friends regularly.
Get some exercise
Exercise has been proven to be a natural anxiety reliever. Therefore, you must make an effort to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. You can do it all at once, or you can break it up int0 10-minute increments if 30 minutes at a time is too much. You’ll want to do exercises that move your arms and legs for maximum effectiveness.
Get restful sleep
When you don’t get adequate rest, your anxiety can become worse. Therefore, you should strive to get at least 7 hours of sleep, if possible, go for 9.
Professional Treatment Options to Cope with Panic Attacks
Therapy has been proven to be the most effective form of treatment for panic attacks and panic disorder- even a short course of treatment.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This type of therapy focuses on your thought patterns and behaviors that trigger and/or sustain your panic attacks. It helps you cast a more realistic light on your fears and understand that nothing terrible is going to happen. This helps the experience of a panic attack be less traumatic.
This type of therapy allows you to experience sensations of panic in an environment where you are safe. This helps you learn and practice safe, healthy ways of coping. The therapist may ask you to hold your breath, hyperventilate, or shake your head side to side, as these cause sensations similar to those that come with panic. Each time you are exposed, you become less afraid of them and you feel more in control.
Medication Options for Panic Attacks
In some cases, doctors will prescribe medications to control/reduce the symptoms of panic attacks- but you must understand, this is not a resolution. Only the most severe cases should involve medication- and they should never be the only treatment used. Most individuals who have used medication have found that they work best when combined with other treatment options, such as lifestyle changes, therapy, and the underlying causes of the panic attacks are addressed.
Following are a few of the medications that are commonly prescribed for panic attacks and panic disorder.
Keep in mind that antidepressants take a few weeks to kick in. Therefore, you must take them, even if you’re not experiencing symptoms. They’re not a one-and-done. You can just take them when you go into a panic attack, they won’t work.
A benzodiazepine is an anti-anxiety medication that is fast-acting, which means you’ll feel your symptoms subside within 30 minutes. However, most physicians are cautious about prescribing them because they can be addictive, and the withdrawal symptoms can be brutal.
Tips for Helping Someone Who is Experiencing a Panic Attack
When you observe a loved one in the midst of a panic attack, it can be scary. Their breathing becomes shallow and fast and they may feel dizzy/lightheaded, nauseous, and may even say they feel like they’re having a heart attack. You probably see the situation clearly and realize that they are being irrational. However, no matter how irrational you feel they’re being, you must keep in mind that the danger is real to them. You can just tell them to calm down and expect everything to work out. You must be there for them and ride out the panic attack with them. That will help them less afraid of attacks in the future.
Here are some ways you can help your loved one:
You can help their panic attack subside quicker by remaining non-judgemental, calm, and understanding.
Help them focus on their breathing
Find a quiet place, away from the perceived threat, where they can sit down. Then, you can lead them through some breathing exercises.
Encourage physical activity
Have them (and you participate too) raise and lower their arms and stomp their feet. This helps to burn off some of that stress that they are experiencing.
Get them out of their head
Talk with your loved one about a shared interest/passion or ask them to name five things around them.
Encourage them to seek help
Once your loved one has calmed down, they may be embarrassed over having a panic attack in front of you. Let them know that it’s going to be okay and encourage them to seek help.
As you can see, panic attacks and panic disorder is nothing to be ashamed of. There are plenty of ways that you can cope with it. You have to find what works for you.