Signs and Symptoms of a Panic Attack
“I feel like my heart is about to explode out of my chest.” “I’m struggling to catch my breath, I feel like I’m being smothered.” “I’m losing control and I feel like I’m going crazy.” Panic attacks are real and can be both emotionally and physically debilitating; in fact, many people who experience their first panic attack wind up in the emergency room or an urgent care facility preparing to hear terrible news about their health. When the doctor tells them that, physically, they are fine, it can leave questions about what is wrong with them and what they have just experienced. Symptoms of a panic attack can be new and strange, often traumatizing to the patient, and one of the worst experiences a person can have.
Signs of Panic Attacks
According to the Psychology Today, a typical panic attack can last 10 minutes. That’s 10 minutes a patient might experience the following symptoms:
- Sweating, flushing
- Choking sensation, shortness of breath
- Chest pain, a racing heart
- Fear of losing your mind or dying
- Feeling that you are in imminent danger, an intense need to escape
It can be difficult for patients to separate a panic attack from just feeling generally anxious. For doctors to diagnose a panic attack, they look for at least four symptoms, but patients should consider seeing their doctor if they experience the hallmark of a panic attack: thinking they’re dying. Patients should also consider how they feel after they experience a panic attack and discuss these feelings with their doctor. Overwhelming feelings of depression and helplessness are usually experienced as well as fear of another panic attack. Panic attacks may also be triggered by anything. Sometimes, patients may be experiencing intense anxiety and, instead of accepting that they’re anxious, they attempt to fight it, bringing on a panic attack. When patients fight their anxious feelings, they only increase the anxiety felt which can lead to a panic attack. Panic attacks are different from person to person; but, for everyone, it can be considered an emotional nightmare.
Who is Susceptible to Panic Attacks
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 17 percent of the population over the age of 18; and, anyone suffering from anxiety is also prone to suffering from panic attacks. One million Americans will experience panic attack symptoms every month and, on average, three million will suffer from Panic Disorder at some point in their lives. Females are 72 percent more likely to experience panic disorder and panic attacks than male patients are, with the average age of onset being 24 years old. Although the exact cause of panic attacks and panic disorder is unclear, panic attacks may be a genetic condition, the tendency to have panic attacks runs in families. There seems to be correlation between major life transitions and panic attacks, such as college graduations, moving, marriage, divorce and more. Severe stress, like the death of a loved one or job loss, can also trigger a panic attack.
Treating Panic Attacks
There are some at-home ways to treat panic attacks, though they may not be effective for everyone. First, patients should learn about what anxiety is and what a panic attack entails. Patients will learn the sensations and feelings they may be experiencing during a panic attack and understand what they’re going through is normal. Smoking, alcohol, and caffeine can all trigger a panic attack and should be avoided if possible. Also, patients with panic attacks should be careful with some medications that contain stimulants, such as diet pills and non-drowsy cold medications. Breathing control is another technique patients can use at home to help control panic attacks. Hyperventilation can bring on feelings of lightheadedness and tightness in the chest that accompany a panic attack; deep breathing can help relieve the symptoms of panic. Along with breathing control, patients can practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation. These exercises promote relaxation and increase feelings of joy when used properly. Other at-home techniques include restful sleep and regular exercise. Exercise is the original anxiety reliever, so patients should strive to move around for at least 30 minutes most days. Exercises like running, swimming, or dancing can be very effective at anxiety relief. As for sleep, insufficient sleep can make anxiety worse. Patients should strive for seven to nine hours of restful sleep a night. With activity trackers and sleep trackers becoming widely available and low cost, patients are able to measure their sleep to keep an eye on how much they’re getting per night. If at-home techniques aren’t enough, there are some professional treatments that may provide some relief. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, focuses on the thinking patterns that trigger a panic attack and help to focus fears in a more realistic light. Exposure therapy is another option, it allows patients to experience the physical symptoms of a panic attack in a controlled environment to learn healthier ways of coping. Medication may be temporarily prescribed to control or reduce symptoms of panic disorder; however, patients should be aware that medication does not treat or resolve the underlying problem. Medication is useful in severe cases but should never be the only treatment option pursued. Medication is more effective when combined with other treatments, like therapy and lifestyle changes, that address the underlying causes of panic disorder. Medications used to treat panic attacks can be:
- Anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medications- these take several weeks to work and need to be taken consistently, rather than just during a panic attack.
- Benzodiazepines- these are an anti-anxiety drug that work very quickly to relieve the symptoms of a panic attack. However, benzodiazepines are very addictive and have serious withdrawal symptoms if used improperly, so should be used with caution.
Panic attacks can feel scary, and sometimes even the thought of having another one can be enough to start panicking. But, patients should know that help exists and they’re not alone.
How We Can Help You?
Best Day Psychiatry and Counseling is here to help you have a better day and find a better way. We treat a wide range of psychiatric conditions for both children and adults. Contact us today, we’re ready to help: