Panic attack signs are important to understand, as you’ll certainly want to address your panic attacks with your doctor. A panic attack typically begins abruptly, and most often peaks within 10 minutes. Unlike lingering feelings of anxiety, panic attacks are shorter and more intense. They can be very debilitating and frightening.
Some panic attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one panic attack ends, and another begins. It is common for those with panic attacks to feel like they’re dying or internally exploding.
Because the physical symptoms of a panic attack seem so real, it is also common for those experiencing an attack to believe they are going insane. This can be terrifying. Although panic attacks won’t be fatal if left untreated, failure to address and treat your panic attacks can negatively impact your quality of life and overall mental health.
What Does Having a Panic Attack Mean?
A panic attack is a sudden rush of fear, dysregulation and discomfort that sends your heart racing and your body into fight-or-flight mode. A panic attack can be triggered by many things, such as stressful or traumatic life events. People get panic attacks due to life changes such as losing a loved one, overwhelming financial hardship, breakups, while also sometimes getting panic attacks simply from heavy traffic on an expressway.
Even without an apparent cause, the feelings experienced during a panic attack are genuine to the person having them. A panic attack can come out of the blue, even when you’re not experiencing a significant trauma.
Panic Attack Signs and Symptoms
A panic attack is an episode of intense fear (including physical and emotional discomfort) that reaches a peak within minutes. During a panic attack, a variety of psychological and physical symptoms occur. These symptoms include:
- Rapid heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling smothered
- Feeling like you’re choking
- Chest pain
- Stomach pain
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed or unsteady
- Chills or overheating (especially in combination with sweating)
- Numbness or tingling sensations (particularly in the hands and feet)
- Feelings of derealization or being detached from oneself (depersonalization or dissociation)
- Feeling like you’ve lost control or are going crazy (psychotic features)
- Visual hallucinations (such as walls moving, shadows)
What Causes Panic Attacks?
There is no single cause for panic attacks. Research indicates that panic disorder may be related to how the brain processes emotions, especially fear. Although the direct cause is unknown, a combination of genetics and adverse life events often play a role. Temperament that is more sensitive to stress or tends to react negatively to certain situations may also be a significant factor.
In addition, people dealing with major life transitions such as moving, getting over a breakup, starting a new job or graduating might notice panic attack signs while thinking about changes in their lives. In a nutshell, the way you respond to stress, your temperament, and changes in brain chemistry all work together to trigger panic attacks.
How Can Panic Attacks Be Treated?
Now that you’re aware of some panic attack signs and symptoms, you might be sure you’re experiencing panic attacks and be wondering about treatment.
Research shows that combination treatment with medications and psychotherapy is effective in reducing panic attacks. Everyone is different, but on average, it takes about 8 to 12 weeks to feel enough improvement to feel confident in your control over the attacks. This means you’ll need therapy and perhaps medications for several months. You may also need to think about learning some techniques to keep from having a full-blown panic attack when problems arise.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is considered the first-line and best treatment for panic disorder because CBT focuses on changing how you respond to panic symptoms. This therapy relates to how you think about yourself, others, the world around you, and the future. The goal is for you to change pessimistic thoughts into positive and realistic ones. A therapist helps you learn this skill in sessions that often occur weekly over a period of months, with an end goal of how to prevent panic attacks.
Generally, panic disorder is treated by antidepressants which are used to up-regulate the serotonin system. This is accomplished through selective serotonin reuptake inhibition (SSRI). SSRIs help stabilize the sensitivity of the serotonin receptors involved in the panic response. SSRI medications that have been proven to treat panic attacks effectively include fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), escitalopram (Lexapro), citalopram (Celexa), and venlafaxine (Effexor).
Pharmaceutical medications can also be used in the treatment of panic disorder when other methods have failed. Your doctor may prescribe anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines, antidepressants, or beta-blockers to help treat your panic disorder. These medications are very effective at treating the immediate symptoms of panic but are not without their drawbacks. They generally have short half-lives, so their effects wear off in two to three hours. They can be dangerous or fatal when combined with alcohol or similar depressant drugs, and they can worsen sleep problems in the long run.
Individuals often benefit from learning relaxation and stress-management techniques — sometimes called anxiety management — and practising more profound breathing exercises, which can help lessen the impact of panic symptoms and create calmer feelings.
Methods of treatment for panic attacks generally depend on the frequency, intensity, and duration of the attacks. Therapy is beneficial for people with frequent panic attacks and ongoing anxiety. In therapy, you’ll be learning how to regulate your nervous system. You’ll learn grounding exercises and relaxation techniques, and practice breathing exercises. It’s also helpful to keep things in perspective by remembering that panic disorders are the most common form of anxiety disorders and there is lots of help available.
The Bottom Line
Understanding panic attack signs and symptoms is the first step toward getting the help you need. Many people who experience frequent panic attacks find them to be debilitating or excruciating. The condition can worsen, and panic attacks can become more frequent if left untreated or unaddressed. That’s why it’s crucial to work with your doctor or therapist to talk about the best ways to reduce panic attacks or how to deal with them when they come. In some cases, medications or other forms of treatment may be necessary, such as eye movement trauma therapy.
Knowing what you’re up against when panic hits will help you control it and deal with flare-ups when they happen. Collaborating with medical professionals to come up with a treatment plan that works for you, and sticking with it, is the best defence against panic attacks in the long run.