Did you know that about six million American Adults a year experience panic disorder? While panic disorder impacts all ages, it usually develops in early adulthood and grows stronger without intervention or help. So what defines a panic attack? Panic attacks can seemingly come "out of the blue," and even in our sleep. While panic attacks may feel as though they last forever, they reach their peak within a few minutes. Common symptoms of a panic attack include the following: heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, chest pain, feeling of choking, chills, hot flashes, a feeling of "unreality," a fear of "going crazy," and a fear of dying. If you're one of the many people who have experienced a panic attack in your life (and by the way almost everyone has had at least one) you know first hand how terrifying and confusing they can be.
The first, and possibly the most important thing to know, about panic attacks is that in and of themselves they are not dangerous. To put it simply, a panic attack is our body charging into a primal survival mode. When we come upon danger in the world our body needs to react in a certain way to survive. For instance, if we came across a dangerous predator in nature we would start to breath faster, so that our body is filled with more oxygen allowing us to run faster. Isn't it wonderful to know our body is so capable? All joking aside, the problem with these bodily responses during panic attacks is that since we aren't, in reality, facing real and eminent danger our brain interprets the symptoms as dangerous themselves. So, it's actually the thoughts we have about the panic symptoms that cause us to be so afraid of the event itself. This is why people often end up in the ER room thinking they are having a heart attack when it's really a panic attack. Their heart is beating fast, their light-headed (both common symptoms of panic) and so they think “this is it, I’m dying,” and then their brain tells them to jump into action mode and go to the hospital.
Perhaps, more commonly, people are embarrassed to admit they have panic attacks and/or don't know that there are ways to treat them so they chose to silently suffer. Because those who suffer from panic attacks are so afraid of them happening again they may start avoiding situations that could trigger panic, or even try and numb themselves from the fear by using drugs or alcohol. This is often where a problem cycle begins.
So what are a few things you can do to help? First, I believe gaining more knowledge about what panic attacks are, and why they feel the way they do is important. Second, working with a therapist to change the interpretations and thoughts you have attached to your symptoms can positively change your view of panic attacks. Lastly, while no person or medication can guarantee to stop panic attacks, you can change the way you react to them which will both lesson their impact and intensity.
If you want to find out more about how changing your attitude toward anxiety and panic can help, listen to this podcast by Dr. Reid Wilson, Licensed Psychologist and author of "Don't Panic."
Written by: Kaitlin Soule, LMFT