Understanding Panic Attacks: Symptoms, Differences, and Effective Treatment
Panic attacks can be debilitating experiences, causing intense fear and distress. It is important to recognize the symptoms, understand the difference between panic attacks and anxiety attacks, and explore effective treatment options. In this blog post, we will delve into the nature of panic attacks, their symptoms, the distinction between panic and anxiety attacks, their prevalence, and strategies for managing and treating panic attacks.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or discomfort that reaches its peak within about 10 minutes and usually lasts between 5 and 20 minutes. It often comes without warning, leaving individuals feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Panic attacks can be recurrent and may lead to a fear of future attacks, which can significantly impact a person's daily life.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack:
- Heart palpitations or accelerated heart rate
- Shortness of breath or feeling smothered
- Sweating and trembling
- Sensations of choking or a feeling of being suffocated
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
- Fear of dying
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Chills or hot flashes
- Feeling as if you're going to die
- Intense terror.
- A choking or smothering sensation.
- Fear of losing control.
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself).
- Bursting into tears
Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack:
While panic attacks and anxiety attacks share some similarities, they also have distinct characteristics. Panic attacks arise abruptly and are often accompanied by an intense sense of impending doom. Conversely, anxiety attacks are typically triggered by a specific stressor and develop gradually. Panic attacks are also more severe and can involve a wider range of physical symptoms compared to anxiety attacks.
Prevalence of Panic Attacks:
Panic attacks are relatively common, with an estimated 11% of the population experiencing them at some point in their lives. Women are more prone to panic attacks than men, and these episodes can occur at any age, although they often manifest in early adulthood.
Treating Panic Attacks:
The good news is that panic attacks are highly treatable, and various therapeutic approaches can help individuals manage and overcome them. Panic attacks are usually treated with cognitive behavioral techniques and not medications. Here are some effective treatment options:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to panic attacks. It provides practical strategies to challenge irrational thoughts and gradually face feared situations.
Medication: In some cases, doctors may prescribe medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or benzodiazepines to alleviate the symptoms of panic attacks. Medication should be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional and always in combination with therapy.
Relaxation Techniques: Deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness meditation can help individuals reduce anxiety and manage panic attacks.
Lifestyle Changes: Adopting a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and stress management, can contribute to overall well-being and reduce the frequency and intensity of panic attacks.
Treatment to try now
(CBT) is a widely recognized and effective treatment approach for panic attacks. CBT focuses on identifying and modifying negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to panic attacks. It's important to note that CBT is often tailored to meet individual needs, and the specific techniques and duration of treatment may vary. A licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or licensed therapist, can provide personalized guidance and support throughout the CBT process.
The primary objective in treating panic attacks is to effectively reduce their frequency, intensity, and duration. One crucial aspect of managing a panic attack is to refrain from resisting or combating it. Instead, it is helpful to acknowledge the presence of the panic attack by consciously recognizing, "I am experiencing a panic attack." To regulate your breathing and prevent hyperventilation, focus on slowing down your breath rather than taking deep breaths.
Here's a recommended breathing exercise:
Inhale gently through your nose, counting to 2 in your mind.
Pause for approximately 2 seconds.
Exhale slowly through pursed lips, counting to 4 mentally. By pursing your lips while exhaling, you can create a slight resistance to your breath, aiding in slowing down the exhalation process.
Remember, it's crucial to practice these techniques consistently and personalize them according to your comfort level. Seeking guidance from a licensed mental health professional can provide further support in developing a comprehensive strategy for managing panic attacks.
Here is a video to help you practice this technique so that you’ll know what to do when you have a panic attack.
You’ll feel your breathing begin to slow down.
As your panic attack decreases, you'll quickly realize that your not powerless from panic attacks and you can overcome them with practice.
The therapist begins by providing psychoeducation about panic attacks, explaining the underlying causes and the physical and psychological symptoms associated with them. Understanding the nature of panic attacks helps individuals gain insight into their experiences and reduces fear and uncertainty.
Identifying Triggers and Negative Thoughts:
Through guided discussions, the therapist helps the individual identify triggers that precede panic attacks. Triggers can be specific situations, thoughts, or bodily sensations. The therapist also assists in identifying negative thoughts or cognitive distortions that arise during panic attacks, such as catastrophic thinking or overestimating danger.
Challenging Negative Thoughts:
Once triggers and negative thoughts are identified, the therapist guides the individual in challenging and replacing these thoughts with more realistic and balanced ones. This process involves examining the evidence for and against the negative thoughts and generating alternative explanations or perspectives.
To reduce avoidance behaviors and desensitize individuals to panic-inducing situations, CBT often includes a gradual exposure component. The therapist works collaboratively with the individual to create a hierarchy of feared situations or triggers. Starting with less anxiety-provoking situations, the individual gradually confronts these situations while practicing relaxation techniques and using coping strategies to manage anxiety and panic symptoms.
CBT incorporates behavioral techniques to interrupt the cycle of panic. This may involve teaching relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation, which help individuals reduce physical symptoms of anxiety. The therapist may also introduce assertiveness training and stress management techniques to enhance coping skills.
Between sessions, individuals are often given homework assignments to practice the skills learned in therapy. This may include keeping thought records, engaging in exposure exercises, or implementing relaxation techniques in real-life situations. Homework assignments promote generalization of skills and reinforce the therapeutic progress outside of the therapy sessions.
Maintenance and Relapse Prevention:
As therapy progresses and panic attacks become less frequent, the therapist focuses on relapse prevention strategies. This involves identifying early warning signs of anxiety and panic, developing strategies for coping with stressors, and creating a plan for managing future challenges. Individuals are encouraged to continue using the techniques learned in therapy to maintain long-term progress.
Rule out Medical Conditions!
- Cardiac Conditions: Certain heart-related conditions can mimic the symptoms of panic attacks or trigger panic attacks due to the fear and distress they induce. Examples include coronary artery disease, arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), mitral valve prolapse, and congestive heart failure.
- Respiratory Disorders: Respiratory conditions that cause difficulty breathing or mimic symptoms of shortness of breath can lead to panic attacks. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other respiratory disorders may provoke anxiety and panic in individuals, especially during episodes of respiratory distress.
- Endocrine Disorders: Hormonal imbalances and endocrine disorders can impact mood regulation and increase the risk of panic attacks. Conditions such as hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and pheochromocytoma (a rare tumor that affects the adrenal glands) can contribute to panic attack symptoms.
- Substance Use and Withdrawal: Substance abuse, including the use of stimulants, certain medications, and withdrawal from substances like alcohol or benzodiazepines, can lead to panic attacks. Discontinuation or abrupt changes in medication regimens should always be done under medical supervision to minimize the risk of withdrawal-induced panic attacks.
It's important to note that this is not an exhaustive list, and individual experiences may vary. If you are experiencing panic attacks or have concerns about your health, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional or mental health provider for a proper evaluation and diagnosis. They can help determine if any underlying medical conditions contribute to your panic attacks and guide you towards appropriate treatment and management strategies.