Panic Attacks and How to Treat Them“I have a panic attack whenever I see a dog.” “I had a panic attack when my sports team started to lose after having a three-point lead.” “I’m pretty sure I have a panic attack whenever I have to give a speech at work.” Panic attacks. We hear the phrase used to describe things all the time. What does the term actually mean? How can we use it correctly? In most situations, while we may feel “panicked,” we’re likely not having a real panic attack. A real panic attack is where someone feels sudden and intense physical symptoms. These can range from a racing heart, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath and more. When we experience these symptoms, we often feel like something is seriously wrong or that we’re dying. Many times people mistake the symptoms of a panic attacks as a heart attack. They will even take themselves to the emergency room.
Symptoms and Causes of a Panic AttackSymptoms of a panic attack include:
- Fear, fear of dying or losing control
- Sense of detachment from the world or oneself
- Heart palpitations and chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the throat
- Dry mouth
- Chills or hot flashes
- Numbness or tingling feeling
Panic Attacks versus Anxiety AttacksIn order to use the right terminology, the first thing to note is the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks. While many use the terms interchangeably, they’re actually different disorders. Panic attacks are recognized as a condition by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). They can be expected, usually triggered by phobias or other external stressors, or they can be unexpected. Having more than one panic attack may be a sign of panic disorder. Anxiety attacks are not recognized by the DSM-5, meaning the signs and symptoms are fluid and open to individual interpretation. Typical symptoms of anxiety include worry, distress and fear. These feelings of anxiety can stem from stressful situations, experiences or events and may come on gradually. Because of the fluid definition, anxiety attacks can differ from person to person. Panic attacks and anxiety may feel similar. That’s because they share a lot of symptoms and can both be experienced at the same time. Anxiety about a situation may build up and culminate in a panic attack when the event or situation finally arrives.
Panic DisorderPeople are diagnosed with panic disorder when they experience panic attacks out of nowhere and are preoccupied with the fear of another attack. They often will occur unexpectedly and are twice as common in women than in men. Panic disorder often begins in the late teen years to early adulthood.
Treating Panic Attacks and Panic DisorderThe best way to treat panic attacks and panic disorder is by seeing a psychiatrist. An exam can be done to figure out the cause of the panic attacks and rule out other serious medical issues. After medical causes are ruled out, treatment can begin. Cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that’s useful for treating panic disorder. CBT teaches patients different ways of thinking and reacting to the feelings that accompany panic attacks. Patients learn to react differently to the physical sensations that come with anxiety and the fear that occurs during a panic attack. Then the attacks can begin to disappear. Medication can also be used to treat panic disorder. Medications used can include:
- Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs),
- Serotonin-norepinephrine re-uptake inhibitors (SNRIs),
- Beta-blockers, and
- Benzodiazepines (very sparingly)
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