What exactly is a panic attack?

You may have heard people talk about having a panic attack. You may have also used these words yourself to describe how you are feeling. Many people confuse panic attacks with heightened periods of anxiety. As a therapist, I have had many clients tell me that they have had a panic attack, but what exactly does that mean? Officially, according to the DSM used by mental health professionals to diagnosis mental health disorders, a panic attack by definition is “an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that peaks within minutes.” During that time, a person experiences at least 4 of the following symptoms: Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate, Sweating, Trembling or shaking, Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering, A feeling of choking, Chest pain or discomfort, Nausea or abdominal distress, Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint, Feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself, Fear of losing control or going crazy, Fear of dying, Numbness or tingling sensations, and Chills or hot flushes.

Panic attacks can feel scary, but they are not dangerous.

Panic attacks are relatively common, with about 22% of people reporting at least one during their lifetime. People who have other mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression may be more prone to experiencing panic attacks as well. When a person has a panic attack, the physical symptoms often feel so intense that they fear that something is medically wrong with their body. In fact, many people go to the Emergency Room each year with thoughts that they are having a heart attack only to be told that their heart is fine and that anxiety triggered a panic attack.

3 things that can help if you are having a panic attack:

1)     Control your breathing. When we are anxious, we often increase our breathing rate. This helps us get more oxygen into our body to help us get ready to run or fight. Remember- you are not in danger. Breathing faster can make you start to hyperventilate, and this will make you feel worse. You may start to feel dizzy, lightheaded, have blurry vision or have a sense of feeling unreal or like you are in a dream. Slow your breathing down so you are breathing in normal amounts of air.

2)     Focus on what is going on around you. When people are having a panic attack, they often focus on how their body is feeling. It can help to move your focus to outside your body. What are some things that you can see? What can you hear? Smell? Taste? Touch?

3)     Check in with your thinking. Our thoughts impact the way we are feeling. Many people find that they are thinking that they are going to faint (extremely unlikely), are having a heart attack, or are going to lose control. If you are thinking these things, it makes sense that you will be increasing your anxiety instead of helping yourself calm down and get through it. Try saying things to yourself like: “I know this is a panic attack and it will pass. It feels uncomfortable, but I know it is not dangerous. This has happened before, and nothing was medically wrong with me.” You can also write some helpful thoughts on an index card or in the notes section of your phone to read to yourself.

If you are experiencing panic attacks, therapy can help.

Many people try to cope with panic attacks on their own only to find that they start to avoid many things that may trigger one. This list of things to avoid tends to keep growing as the worry about having a panic attack increases. Avoidance can limit your joy in life and stop you from fully participating in the things that matter most to you. A therapist can help you tackle panic attacks by creating a custom treatment plan. Therapy for panic attacks can often make significant changes in 6 to 8 sessions. Seeking therapy can help you start to enjoy life again. 

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