A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that develops for no apparent reason and that triggers severe physical reactions. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying. You may have only one or two panic attacks in your lifetime. But if you have panic attacks frequently, it could mean that you have panic disorder, a type of chronic anxiety disorder.
Panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or stress, but they're now recognized as a real medical condition. Although panic attacks can significantly affect your quality of life, treatment - including medications, psychotherapy and relaxation techniques to help prevent or control panic attacks - is very effective.
Symptoms: A panic attack is a discrete period of intense fear or discomfort, in which the following symptoms developed abruptly and reached a peak within 10 minutes:
A sensation of adrenaline going through your entire body
Shortness of breath
Stomach problems (spastic colon)
Racing or pounding heartbeat or palpitations
Dizziness or vertigo
Nausea / stomach pains
Choking or smothering sensations
Tingling or numbness in the hands, face, feet or mouth (paresthesia)
- Feelings of "crawly," "itchy," or "cringy" skin sensations.
- Burning sensations
- Trembling or shaking
- Feeling of claustrophobia
- Feeling like the body is shutting down/ dying
- Tremors in the legs/shaking legs/thighs
- Tingling spine
- Feeling like one is experiencing a heart attack
- Muscle spasms
- Feeling of physical weakness or limpness of the body
- Grinding teeth or tensing other muscles repeatedly or for prolonged periods of time
- Temporary blindness
- Sizzling/ringing in ears/head
- Intense and/or frightening realizations of reality
- Loss of the ability to react logically to stimuli
- Loss of cognitive ability in general
- Racing thoughts (often based on fear)
- Irrational thoughts
- Loud internal dialogue
- Feeling like nothing is real
- Feeling of impending doom
- Feeling of "going crazy" or becoming insane
- Feeling out of control
- Feeling like no one understands what is happening
- Vision is somewhat impaired (eyes may feel like they are shaking.)
- Feeling that death will come any second
- Avoidance behavior
- Terror, or a sense that something unimaginably horrible is about to occur and one is powerless to prevent it
- Fear that the panic is a symptom of a serious illness
- Fear that the panic will not subside
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of death
- Fear of living
- Fear of going crazy
- Flashbacks to earlier panic trigger
- Intense "scared" feeling
- Fear of failure
- Tunnel vision
- Heightened senses
- The apparent slowing down or speeding up of time
- Dream-like sensation or perceptual distortion
- Dissociation, or the perception that one is not connected to the body or is disconnected from space and time (depersonalization)
- Feeling of loss of free will, as if acting entirely automatically without control
Causes of Panic Attack: As with most behavioral illnesses, the causes of panic attacks are many and they include: Genetics, Stress and Certain changes in the way parts of your brain function.
The cause of most panic attacks is not clear, so treatment may be different for each person. Typically, it involves psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, or medication. Alternative treatments like meditation and relaxation therapy are often used to help relax the body and relieve anxiety.
Psychotherapy offers support and helps to minimize the fearfulness of symptoms, and sometimes is sufficient to clear up the disorder. Recurrent attacks, however, require additional measures.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps people learn to deal with panic symptoms, using techniques like muscle and breathing relaxation. They also gain reassurance that panic will not lead to the catastrophic events they fear, since many people fear they are having a heart attack.
Antidepressants often help reduce anxiety and the frequency and severity of panic attacks. Often, anti-anxiety medications are provided at least in the beginning of medical therapy.
Home prevention: While panic attacks and panic disorder benefit from professional treatment, you can also help manage your symptoms on your own. Some of the lifestyle and self-care steps you can take. If a person has been diagnosed with panic attacks in the past and is familiar with the signs and symptoms, the following techniques may help the person stop the attack. You may also try this for yourself if you are experiencing the symptoms of a panic attack.
- First, relax your shoulders and become conscious of any tension that you may be feeling in your muscles.
- Then, with gentle reassurance, progressively tense and relax all the large muscle groups. Tighten your left leg with a deep breath in, for example, hold it, then release the leg muscles and the breath. Move on to the other leg. Move up the body, one muscle group at a time.
- Slow down your breathing. This may best be done blowing out every breath through pursed lips as if blowing out a candle. Also, place your hands on your stomach to feel the rapidity of your breathing. This may allow you to further control your symptoms.
- Tell yourself (or someone else if you are trying this technique with someone) that you are not "going crazy." If you are concerned about not being able to breathe, remember that if you are able to talk, you are able to breathe.
If a person is diagnosed with any medical illness, especially heart disease, home treatment is not appropriate. Even if the person has a history of panic attacks, home care is not appropriate if there is any new or worrisome symptom.
Precaution: You can take care at home by following some definite lifestyle.
- Stick to your treatment plan. Facing your fears can be difficult, but treatment can help you feel like you're not a hostage in your own home.
- Join a support group for people with panic attacks or anxiety disorders so that you can connect with others facing the same problems.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and illicit drugs, all of which can trigger or worsen panic attacks.
- Practice stress management and relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga and guided imagery may be good options.
- Get physically active, since aerobic activity may have a calming effect on your mood.
- Get sufficient sleep - enough so that you don't feel drowsy during the day.
Prevalence statistics about Anxiety Panic disorder: According to NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) the following statistics relate to the prevalence of Anxiety Panic disorder:
- 3 million American adults
- 1.7% of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54
Panic attacks are frightening but fortunately physically harmless episodes. Keep a routine healthy lifestyle and avoid stress to keep you safe from this disaster.
(Sources: mayoclinic.com, emedicinehealth.com, medicinenet.com)