Panic Attacks

A panic attack is a sudden, short-term but impactful event in which the individual has a range of symptoms, including perspiration, increased heart rate, and even feelings of dread. While not always associated with a panic disorder, panic attacks can be present with many types of anxiety disorders.   

When Panic Attacks Happen

Panic attacks can occur suddenly and typically last a few minutes. Nonetheless, panic attacks can seem much longer in duration to the sufferer. In the aftermath, the individual who suffered a panic attack may feel an overwhelming need to sleep or feel nervous for hours or even days after. Much of this anxiety can stem from fear of the panic attack returning.  

Internal Stimulus Translate into Physical Symptom

Anyone might feel a rapid onset and dramatic physical response to danger from the outside world. As an example, a person who gets mugged on the street might start sweating or experience a rapid heart rate. 

In a panic attack, similar symptoms can occur but have no external stimulus or cause. Rather, the stimulus comes from within. This can make the individual feel as if they are “losing it”; panic attacks are brief, however, and perhaps most importantly, treatable.

Not Your Typical Worry

We all go through stressful times and experience negative emotions or physical symptoms as a result. Anything from traffic to work to the end of a relationship can make us stressed or anxious. A panic attack differs from these typical worries in that it is an extreme embodiment of this type of stress and anxiety. 

In fact, those experiencing a panic attack may feel as if they are near death, in some cases. The extremity of the physical symptoms serves as a differentiator from the normal stress and anxiety any of us feel on a given day.  Twice as like to appear in women as in men, panic attacks affect 2 to 3 percent of Americans every year.

The Symptoms of a Panic Attack

  • Rapidly increasing heart rate
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Trembling and shaking
  • A tingling or numb feeling in the body or limbs
  • Perspiration
  • Respiration problems
  • A feeling of losing control
  • Distressed digestion
  • A feeling of imminent danger
  • A feeling of choking
  • Looking “in” from outside reality  

Stopping a Panic Attack

Someone who has panic attacks should consult a mental health professional as soon as possible. Although not all methods work for all people, the strategies below can sometimes help. 

  1. Controlled Breathing - Take a moment to focus in on your breathing, taking air in through the nose and exhaling from the mouth. Close your eyes and try to center your thoughts on this pattern of breathing alone. 
  2. Acknowledgement - Call the panic attack what it is: a panic attack. Identifying what is happening can neutralize the impact of the attack. Remember that panic attacks typically last only a short time  
  3. Practice Mindfulness - Create a connection with three sensations around you, be they colors, scents, or sounds, and engage in mindfulness. This focus on interconnectedness with the outside world can calm your thoughts.
  4. Relax - Beginning with your feet and working your way up through your body, focus on tensing then relaxing each area.  
  5. Use a Mantra - Find a mantra that soothes you and repeat it again and again. Choices might include: “This will run its course” or “I am safe from danger”.
  6. Visualize - Focus your thoughts on a place that brings you joy. This may be something familiar such as your home or your ideal place to visit, such as a beach.

While these interventions help, patients benefit from working with a therapist to develop strategies and techniques that best address their particular situations.