Panic Attacks: What Exactly Are They, How Do You Know You are Having One, What Should You Do?
© 2014 Health Realizations, Inc.
About one out of every 75 people may experience a panic attack at some point in their life, but for some, the very fear of having another attack can lead to full-fledged panic disorder, and a number of serious related complications.
Panic attacks affect one out of 75 Americans, but for an estimated 6 million, the attacks become frequent and interfere with daily life -- a condition known as panic disorder.
Although panic attacks have been associated with major life events (graduating college, getting married, having a child), and your risk increases if a family member has had them, panic attacks often occur without warning, and can happen to anyone -- even while you're asleep.
Experts often compare panic attacks to your body's natural "fight-or-flight" response. If you were in danger, your heart rate and breathing would speed up, and you'd be prepared to react to the threat. In the case of a panic attack, you experience this agitated state of being, but without any real threat or stimulus present.
Much More Than 'Stressed Out': Signs of a Real Panic Attack
You've certainly felt flustered at one time or another, or maybe about to lose your cool. These feelings, though intense, are not nearly on the same level as a real panic attack, which prompts feelings of sheer terror. Symptoms include:
Racing, rapid heartbeat
Shortness of breath, hyperventilation
Dizziness, lightheadedness or nausea
Terror, fear that you're going crazy
Choking, chest pains, abdominal cramps
Hot flashes or chills
Tingling in fingers or toes
A fear that you're going to die
Aside from the above symptoms, panic attacks occur suddenly, without warning, and are unrelated to any actual threats (they can occur when you're out shopping, eating dinner, etc.). Most panic attacks peak within 10 minutes but can last up to a half-hour. Attacks can also repeat themselves for hours.
Health Risks: When Panic Attacks Progress to Panic Disorder
People with panic disorder are at an increased risk of other serious conditions including depression, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and phobias.
Although panic attacks are not dangerous in-and-of-themselves (other than leaving you feeling fatigued and probably frightened), they can progress into panic disorder, a condition that can become so severe it interferes with daily living.
Panic disorder affects about 6 million Americans (and about twice as many women as men), according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Your panic attacks may have progressed to panic disorder if:
You have frequent panic attacks
You constantly worry about having more attacks
You change your behavior as a result of your panic attacks (avoiding locations or situations where you've had an attack, etc.)
Panic disorder can make a person fearful of leaving their home, interacting in social situations or partaking in other activities in which they fear a panic attack may occur. The fear can easily progress into a more serious phobia, such as agoraphobia (the fear of going outdoors), and other conditions, like depression, if help is not sought. There are other side effects as well. According to the American Psychological Association, people with panic disorders:
Have an increased risk of suicide
Are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
Visit hospital emergency rooms more often
Engage in fewer hobbies, sports and other enjoyable activities
Are often financially dependent on others
Feel less healthy (emotionally and physically) than those without the condition
Are often afraid of driving more than a few miles from home
What to Do if You Have Panic Attacks or Panic Disorder
When a panic attack is occurring, there's not much that can ease the symptoms, however, there are many methods that can help prevent the onset of future attacks. Chief among these is learning how to use relaxation and stress-management techniques to your advantage, including:
Breathing techniques (breathing slowly and deeply)
Guided imagery (imagining yourself in a peaceful place)
Getting adequate sleep
For those with frequent attacks, or who think they may have panic disorder, visiting a psychologist or psychiatrist for cognitive behavioral therapy is effective and recommended. The therapy's goal is to help you understand the disorder, develop new, positive ways of thinking about the attacks, identify triggers, and overcome your fears and phobias.
Therapy is often combined with relaxation techniques, support groups and, in some cases, antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications. Above all else, it's important to remember that panic attacks and panic disorder are completely treatable and can be overcome.
American Psychological Association
National Institute of Mental Health