Panic attacks are frightening experiences. Your heart is pumping, you’re sweating, and you may be shivering all over. Knowing for sure that you are having a panic attack isn’t easy in the moment. In fact, many people mistakenly assume that they are having heart attacks when their first panic attack occurs.
However, panic attacks are not life-threatening. Knowing the signs of a panic attack can help you better understand what is affecting you, and help keep things in perspective when a panic attack hits.
This article will go through everything you need to know on panic attacks: what they are, what are the symptoms, and how to manage them.
What is a Panic Attack?
To understand a panic attack, we are going to look back in time to when humans first started roaming the earth. By the time we started hunting and foraging, the only human tools for self-defense were our senses and physical capabilities. Nowadays, humanity has the benefit of a wide array of sophisticated laws and services protecting them. For better or for worse, that primal ability to quickly respond to danger has stayed with us to this very day.
The human mind and body have developed an intricate connection to enable such a response. The control center for the flight or fight response is called the hypothalamus, which activates two of your body’s systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. When the hypothalamus tells the sympathetic nervous system to kick into flight-or-fight gear, your body gets ready to fight a lion. Adrenaline is released into your bloodstream. You become more alert, your heart starts pumping faster, and your breath rate increases. Nonessential systems like digestion and the immune system shut down to allocate more energy to your emergency functions. Your ability to focus on details and small tasks is reduced as your focus is redirected towards the bigger picture and the impending threat.
These changes prepare your body to either meet your foe and fight or run away as quickly as possible. The motivating feeling of fear is generated by the brain as well. Fight or flight is a fundamental human instinct.
A panic attack is your body experiencing that same survival reflex, except that there is genuinely threatening stimulus. Instead, a panic attack is initiated by stress, phobias, or PTSD – in other words, various states of mind that are subjectively threatening to the individual, but not objectively dangerous.
If panic attacks are occurring repeatedly in a person’s life, they may be suffering from a panic disorder. In the United States, between 2-6% of all adults suffer from panic disorder. It is often associated with other mental health disorders, such as depression and OCD. Women are 2-3 times more likely to be affected than men, and panic disorders usually develop when people are between the ages of 18 and 45.
Panic Attack Symptoms
Detecting a panic attack isn’t very hard. It is a distinctive experience, but it may differ from person to person. Each person may experience different sets of the symptoms listed below.
- Increased heart rate – your heart may feel like it’s pounding even if you’ve been sitting comfortably for hours.
- Sweating – out of nowhere, you can experience moderate to severe amount of sweat. Some people find that their clothing becomes completely soaked by the end of an attack.
- Shaking or trembling – you may find that you lose the ability to do finer movements and that your limbs and torso are shaking.
- Shortness of breath or feelings of being smothered – A distinctive and frightening feeling that pressure is being applied on your chest or mouth may be present. This may cause you to breathe deeply and heavily.
- Feeling of choking – As your muscles tighten throughout your body, the muscles surrounding your windpipe may constrict, which may cause you to feel as if you are choking.
- Chest pain or discomfort – You may feel pain throughout your chest. Some mistake this for a stroke or heart attack.
- Chills or hot flashes
- Nausea or upset stomach – As your body shuts down non-essential services, it may try to expel anything from your stomach. This may cause you to feel nauseous.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness – You may have trouble focusing on things and people around you.
- Numbness or tingling sensations – you may feel “pins and needles” all over your body, and some or all your limbs may lose sensation.
- Blurred vision – your pupils will dilate as your body will try to take to expand your vision. This may result in blurred vision.
- Dry mouth
- An urgent need to go to the washroom
- A sense of things being unreal or feeling detached from oneself – you may not believe that you are having a panic attack. You may feel very confused and disoriented with the experience.
- Fear of dying, losing control
- An urgent need to escape
- Inability to concentrate
- Inability to articulate ideas or speak clearly
A person experiencing a panic attack is often too disabled to explain to others what is happening. The symptoms of a panic attack, such as heavy breathing, can worsen other symptoms such as dizziness and confusion. So how do you cope with a panic attack when you are afflicted by one?
How to Deal With a Panic Attack
People who are experiencing panic attacks usually feel that their symptoms are obvious to others and that they are publicly embarrassing themselves. The truth is, unless you are having an extremely dramatic panic attack, people can’t usually tell that you are having an attack unless they observe you closely. The symptoms don’t feel subtle, but they look subtle.
Armed with that knowledge, the first step to dealing with the onset of a panic attack is try to calm down mentally. Just remember: you are not in danger, and it’s very likely that no one realizes you are having a panic attack.
The second step is to sit down and try to breath slowly and deliberately. The symptoms of a panic attack push you to hyperventilate, which will only worsen the situation. Instead, sit down, close your eyes and consciously try to relax your breathing. Panic attacks seldom last for more than 20-30 minutes.
If you are experiencing very severe or frequent panic attacks, you should visit a health professional. They can diagnose your panic disorder accurately and prescribe medication to help. Antidepressants are frequently prescribed, but in very severe cases tranquilizers may be used, which can be an effective stop-gap measure to take the edge off while working on a more permanent solution to the panic disorder. They are not regular or permanent solutions.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy provides a long-lasting solution to panic with reduced risk of relapse because it targets the root causes of panic rather than simply addressing the body’s response to it.
Lifestyle changes that enhance calmness and stress reduction are also helpful. Learning to calm down when stress is getting too high can prevent panic attacks in the first place, giving you peace of mind. Spire can also help to mitigate the threat of panic attacks – Spire allows you to read your body’s breathing rhythms and understand your emotional state. When Spire detects that you are getting too stressed, it sends you notifications so you can sit down, take a break and breathe deeply.
Panic attacks are fairly common, and although having one can be a very disturbing experience, they are treatable. By recognizing the symptoms of a panic attack, you are well on your way to understanding how to control and prevent panic attacks in the future.