What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of unreasonable fear and anxiety in a situation where an actual physical danger or cause is not present. Panic attacks are accompanied by a host of physical symptoms, the most common ones being a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, and nausea. While panic attacks tend to subside and resolve, their effect can be debilitating to those who suffer from them.
If you have had recurrent panic attacks, and you are constantly worrying that you will have more, you are changing behaviors and routines and spending your time trying to avoid it; you could be going on to have a panic disorder.
What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
The most common symptoms associated with panic attacks are:
- Racing heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Heavy breathing and shaking
The other symptoms that have been reported are:
- Throat tightness
- Belly cramps
- Stomach pain
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes
- Numbness and tingling
A panic attack happens when the body needlessly triggers the “flight or fight response,” even in a nonthreatening situation. You could say that it is a malfunctioning of the circuit of the brain that controls fear and anxiety.
Since intense physical symptoms characterize panic attacks, it could be confused with other medical conditions such as heart attacks. While both conditions are associated with symptoms such as chest pain or pressure, pounding or racing heart, feeling lightheaded or faint, and sweating, a heart attack generally occurs during physical exertion. A panic attack usually occurs at rest. While panic attacks subside in minutes, heart attacks would continue to worsen in most cases. If you cannot figure out whether you are having a heart attack or a panic attack, it is best to consult a doctor immediately.
Terms used interchangeably and loosely with panic attacks and panic disorder includes:
- Anxiety disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
There are different types of anxiety disorders, and panic disorder is one of them. A panic disorder is different in that the symptoms are more intense and come on abruptly.
According to MentalHelp.net, “About 1.7 percent of the adult U.S. population ages 18 to 54 – approximately 2.4 million Americans- has a panic disorder in a given year.”
Why do panic attacks occur?
The exact cause of panic attacks is still unclear. However, studies do point to biological and environmental factors.
Your risk of having a panic attack increases if:
- You have a family history of mental health issues
- You have substance abuse issues
- You are facing high levels of stress
How is a panic attack diagnosed?
There is no lab test to diagnose a panic attack. Physicians first conduct lab tests to rule out physical disorders. A psychological evaluation will follow if your lab results do not reflect any medical issues. Your symptoms, concerns, and situations are thoroughly examined, and if it meets the criteria, a diagnosis of panic disorder is given.
How is a panic disorder treated?
- Your physician will recommend you to a psychotherapist under whose guidance you may have to start with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a talk therapy that discusses your fears and tries to modify your thoughts and behaviors from unhealthy triggers to healthy coping habits.
- You may also be started on anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications; however, these may be short-term as they have addictive properties.
- You will be encouraged to make lifestyle changes such as eating healthy food, cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, and starting regular exercise, breathing exercises, and meditation.
Panic disorder and severe health issues
- Though the panic disorder is not life-threatening, it could considerably lower your quality of life.
- The constant worry and fear deplete your energy.
- It causes you to release stress hormones constantly. Living in this state of continuous anxiety could lead to headaches, dizziness, belly cramps, and other symptoms.
- It also lowers your immunity, making you vulnerable to many infectious diseases.
- Constant anxiety also harms your cardiovascular, respiratory, urinary, and renal systems and reduces their efficiency.
- In his article in the BMJ on the severe psychiatric conditions associated with panic disorders, Professor C Barr Taylor says, “About a third of patients with depression present with panic disorder. Over a lifetime, about half of patients with panic disorder will develop depression, and about half of depressed patients will develop panic disorder. Patients may misuse alcohol or drugs (or both) to cope with panic, and, in turn, the use of these substances may unleash panic disorder. Importantly, the risk of suicide is raised in patients with panic disorder, especially those with comorbid depression.”
The role of stress management in panic disorder
- Since stress is a significant contributor to various mental health issues, stress management is an integral part of managing anxiety disorders, including panic disorder. It is important to relax after a stressful day. A stressed body will require extra sleep and rest, and you have to yield to your body’s request.
- Organizing your life and lifestyle could go a long way in dealing with your stress. The first step would be to identify your source of stress. You need to keep a diary and write down your thoughts, the possible causes of your stress, and the frequency of anxiety and panic attacks. You could study these to find patterns of behavior, coping mechanisms, trigger mechanisms, and so on. Once you have managed to identify them, you could work towards coping with them or avoiding them altogether.
- Exercise, meditation, deep breathing techniques are great ways to control stress and anxiety. So is a great support system comprising of family and friends. In a study on the “Effectiveness of a Meditation-based Stress Reduction Program in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders” in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the authors cite, ” A group mindfulness meditation training program can effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic and can help maintain these reductions in patients with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or panic disorder with agoraphobia.”
There are no quick remedies to deep-rooted problems, but prioritizing your health requirements and working towards achieving your health goals will slowly and steadfastly reach you there.