Have you ever experienced an intense and abrupt onset of discomfort that escalates within minutes and feels like it lasts forever? If so, you may have experienced a panic attack.
Recognizing Your Symptoms
A panic attack includes at least four of the following symptoms.
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feelings of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- Chills or heat sensations,
- Paresthesis (numbness or tingling sensations)
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy.”
- Fear of dying
Often, people may experience something similar to a panic attack but may have fewer than 4 symptoms. In such cases, this is referred to as a “limited-symptom panic attack.”
Panic Attack vs. Anxiety
The difference between a panic attack and general anxiety relates to the duration and intensity of symptoms. Panic attacks generally reach their peak intensity level within 10 minutes or less, and then they begin to subside; however, for the person experiencing the panic attack, those 10 minutes or less could feel like hours. While physical symptoms (e.g., increased heart rate, muscle tension, shortness of breath, sweating, etc.) usually accompany anxiety, panic attacks generally have more intense physical symptoms that can feel similar to those of a heart attack, thyroid problems, breathing issues, etc., and as a result, people who experience these may make frequent trips to the doctor or ER because it feels as if they’re experiencing a life-threatening problem.
Panic attacks can come out of the blue or when you’re feeling anxious. Because of their unexpected nature, some people who have recurrent panic attacks may start to develop anxiety about having another attack and make lifestyle changes in an effort to avoid having a panic attack. And sometimes, what may happen is their life becomes very limited because they start to avoid social settings, public places, or even close friends and family.
If it sounds like you’re struggling with any of the above-noted issues, you’re not alone. There are many effective ways to treat panic attacks. One of the most effective ways to develop skills for treating panic attacks is to engage in mental health treatment, with a licensed provider, who has experience with treating panic attacks. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a modality of treatment that has been proven effective for treating panic attacks. Through therapy, people can learn about and develop healthy strategies for coping with panic attacks and reducing their occurrence in the future.
Other strategies that you can practice on your own to help manage panic attacks or panic-like symptoms include the following.
Practice slow, deep breathing.
When we are anxious, our breathing changes. It becomes shorter, shallower, and quicker, which tends to exacerbate panic. When you start to feel panicked, try your best to slow down your breathing with a 3- count: 1-2-3 on the inhale; 3-2-1 on the exhale, making sure you’re inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth
Pause your thoughts.
Often times, when we feel panicked, our thoughts start to spiral out of control, which only makes symptoms worse. Try saying your thoughts aloud, writing them down on paper or on your phone, or calling someone to let them know what you’re thinking. If we can slow down our thoughts, we can create “distance from them,” organize them more effectively, see them as “just thoughts,” and determine a way to calm ourselves down.
Think positive thoughts.
Try to remind yourself that you’re in control of your mind and body, and try to bring to mind other times when you have coped successfully with distress. Some people benefit from reciting short mantras, such as “this too shall pass,” or “I can handle this like I always do.”
Relax your muscles.
Physically relaxing your body will have a direct impact on your thoughts and emotions. Practice tensing and relaxing muscles when you aren’t experiencing a panic attack so that you can distinguish between tension and relaxation states and use these as “go to” strategies during a panic attack.