Recognizing and Understanding Panic Attacks

I have heard it described many times before.

It usually starts with, “I didn’t know what was happening to me.”

They then go on to describe an overwhelming feeling of fear. Feelings of dizziness and or being a little lightheaded come on. Palms sweat and sometimes shake. Their face feels flushed. Blood pressure goes through the roof.

Often the first time it happens it is shrugged off as just an odd episode. It’s not until it happens a few more times that the person realizes it is time to seek some help. They are usually thinking that they must be ill. What they learn is that they are not in fact ill, but are experiencing panic attacks.

Anyone can suffer from a panic attack. Many people who experience them do not immediately recognize the source of their discomfort.

The good news is that panic attacks are easily explainable and with the guidance of a therapist they are also treatable.

What is a Panic Attack?  

Mental health professionals describe panic attacks as sudden rushes of intense dread or distress which are often accompanied by a number of physical symptoms that can include: dizziness, sweating, a racing heart, chest pain, difficulty breathing, trembling, numbness, and even disorientation.

Inside the brain, things can be just as concerning. During a panic attack one will often experience thoughts of fear and dread as well as a fear of doing something uncontrollable or of dying.

Panic attack sufferers are not actually dying. Their blood is pumping with adrenaline. Their bodies are reacting in the same way it would if an immediate threat was present.

In simple terms, their body has triggered their “fight or flight” response in order to protect the individual.

Obviously, there is often no immediate threat when a panic attack sets in. The mind realizes this, but the body ignores this information. The body is saying run. The mind is saying stay. The confusing signals between the mind and body will cause the person to stay in one place.

What Can Cause a Panic Attack?

There is no typical profile for a person who is prone to experience a panic attack. Typically, someone who experiences panic attacks has their first panic attack as a child, but not always. Women tend to experience them more than men, and some research points to genetic dispositions.

Even though panic attacks can seemingly sneak up out of nowhere, they can be triggered by a lack of sleep, drugs, caffeine, alcohol, as well as chemical or hormonal imbalances. Many times they are also often connected to traumatic or challenging life situations, most often ones that have occurred in the past 12 months.

Individuals who experience regular panic attacks cannot often predict when they’ll strike. They find they are more susceptible when they are under extreme stress. Other times they will strike seemingly randomly.

What Can You Do if Experiencing a Panic Attack?

If someone has been diagnosed with panic attacks, they can often make simple lifestyle adjustments to reduce symptoms. Things such as getting more sleep and exercising more regularly can help.

Although they are not recommended for frequent use because they can be habit forming, anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax can be useful for specific situations that are likely to induce panic such as sailing on a boat or flying on a plane.

If panic attacks start to occur frequently, there is a possibility that the the individual has a panic disorder. In the case of a panic disorder, the individual becomes so worried about having a panic attack that their anxiety becomes a source of more anxiety.

To avoid having another attack, they will try to stay away from situations, people, or places that trigger their symptoms. If they feel panic setting in, they will try to fight the fear, which unfortunately, usually makes it worse.

Panic disorders can be managed in the short-term with antidepressants, but are best treated through cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a treatment that tries to help patients tap into the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. Through this therapy they can identify and examine the fears that trigger their anxiety.

The goal is to break the cycle of panic through anxiety counseling. By understanding what causes the feelings of panic, an individual does not have as strong of a physical or emotional response to it. With this new found understanding, they can recognize the feelings of panic for what they are and adopt coping skills.

If you experience panic attacks and are ready to get started learning why, you can contact us to schedule your first appointment.

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