Panic attacks usually start with anxiety. Not everyone who has anxiety experiences panic attacks, and some people have only one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes and never experience another. The symptoms of a panic attack can often mimic symptoms of other health crises, such as a heart attack or another serious illness. Someone who has recurring panic attacks and is constantly in the state of fear of the next one will likely be diagnosed with panic disorder. If you’ve been diagnosed with panic disorder, take comfort in the fact that treatment can help greatly. Let’s go over some of the symptoms of a panic attack.
While the symptoms of a panic attack can vary greatly from person to person, there is a list of common experiences that have been reported. If you experience at least four of these, chances are good you’re experiencing a panic attack.
• Fear—fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy
• Rapid heartbeat, pounding heart, or palpitations
• Chest pain or tightness
• Shortness of breath/tight feeling in throat/feeling smothered or choked
• Chills or hot flashes
• Dizziness, light-headedness
• Nausea or abdominal pain, cramping
• Numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
• Feelings of unreality or detachment (derealization, depersonalization)
• Sense of impending doom
Occasionally, a person will experience a panic attack that feels full-blown but may have fewer than four symptoms. This is usually called a limited-symptom panic attack and can still be traumatic for the sufferer. Unfortunately, the worst thing about any kind of panic attack is that it usually brings on more fear—fear that another attack will occur. A panic attack can happen at any time, regardless of how stressed or calm a person may feel. If you find that you are experiencing panic attacks with four or more symptoms and it’s happening more frequently than before, you will want to seek help. While the attacks are unpleasant and scary, they are not dangerous; however, panic disorder is something that is difficult to manage on your own, and a professional can help you overcome it much more quickly.
If you experience a panic attack for the first time, it’s best to visit a doctor to rule out any other health conditions. Chances are, if you’ve never experienced a panic attack, you will probably visit the ER or a doctor regardless, thinking that you may have a more serious condition. The helpful thing about determining whether your symptoms indicate a panic attack is that they usually reach their peak intensity within about 10 minutes (or less) and then gradually subside. While this doesn’t reduce the symptoms’ intensity, at least you will be more prepared to recognize the signs if it happens again.
Treatment for panic attacks can be very successful. The first step, of course, is determining that what you are experiencing is indeed a panic attack. A proper diagnosis is key to understanding and moving forward. By nature, some people make lifestyle changes in order to avoid further attacks—for example, avoiding places that may trigger attacks or starting an exercise routine to regulate heart rate and boost endorphins. While there is no way to prevent a panic attack, prompt treatment can help reduce future attacks and preferably get rid of them altogether. Without treatment, panic attacks or panic disorder can eventually lead to phobias or other issues that can disrupt your everyday life.
Several medications are generally prescribed for panic disorder, including antidepressants and benzodiazepines. These, along with other forms of treatment, are effective in helping to manage symptoms. Psychotherapy is also highly beneficial helping you to understand panic attacks and learn how to cope with them on an everyday level. The therapist trains you through cognitive behavioral therapy, gradually creating a situation that mimics the symptoms of a panic attack in order to retrain your brain and teach it to dispel the fear. When the fear and panic feelings are no longer threatening, you will be able to avoid a panic attack in the future and the disorder will resolve itself. As a result, you will also begin to overcome situational fears and be able to return to places you may have been avoiding in order to prevent an attack.
Self-care and maintenance for panic disorder include several things that you can manage on your own in addition to your treatment. In addition to regular exercise, making sure to get enough sleep and avoiding caffeine and alcohol will help ward off panic attacks. Smoking and drugs—even just the occasional recreational use—can also trigger panic attacks, so avoiding those at all costs is best. Support groups are also beneficial, as you can meet with others who have similar experiences. Also, as with other disorders such as PTSD and anxiety, relaxation and stress management are important to reducing panic attacks. Activities such as yoga and deep breathing can improve the frequency and severity of panic attacks; muscle relaxation and massage can be beneficial as well. In short, any activity that is calming and relieves stress will help deter the panic attacks from resurfacing.
Treatment and improvement of panic disorder may take a while; there is no quick fix, but the results will be worth the effort. Your symptoms will gradually decrease over several weeks, and you will see a significant decrease—maybe even eradicating panic attacks altogether—in a few months’ time. Regardless of the time it takes, be patient, stick with your treatment, and do your best to stay calm. Consistent results require consistent effort, and in the end, you will emerge healthier, happier, and feeling fearless.