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Top 5 Myths About Panic Attacks

February 2, 2018

 

  

Panic Attack Myths

 

Don't believe these myths about panic attacks:

 

1.  “A panic attack is or will cause a heart attack!”

2.  The “I’m going to faint!” Myth About A Panic Attack

3.  “I’m going to lose control!” 

4:  “I’m going to lose my mind or go crazy!”

5.  “I will have panic attacks for the rest of my life and be stuck on medication.”

Panic attack myths are often the cause of a panic attack and these myths further perpetuate the symptoms of a panic attack.

 

 

What A Panic Attack Really Is

 

A panic attack is NOT life threatening.  The symptoms are the body’s evolutionary response to keep us alive, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. 

 

The fight, flight, or freeze response is helpful if we encounter a wild animal ready to eat us.  The adrenaline that begins flowing through our bodies helps us escape and survive.  When the animal is defeated or evaded, the symptoms disappear. 

 

For most people today, however, there is no wild animal trying to eat them.  It’s a false alarm that just feeds into panic attack myths.  Like a smoke alarm that goes off while cooking, the alarm is loud and unpleasant but the alarm itself is never dangerous, and the house will not burn down.

 

With a panic attack, there is no real danger. 

 

Panic attacks can occur at home watching TV.  Most of the time they occur when people are scared about "What could happen" or "What if?"  "If I give that speech I could stumble on my words, start stuttering, and pass out in embarrassment."  "What if this feeling I'm having is a heart attack?" 

 

Panic attack myths and panic attacks are caused by people's false beliefs about the dangers of what is happening or what could happen. 

Here are some widely held but false belief's or myths about panic attacks

 

 

1.  “A panic attack is or will cause a heart attack!”

 

 

Panic attacks and heart attacks share some of the same symptoms and often people go to the emergency room because they think they are having a heart attack but are actually only having a panic attack.

 

This panic attack myth is easily disproved by getting a medical evaluation. If your doctor concludes that you are healthy with no heart condition, then you know it’s only symptoms of a panic attack. 

 

What is really happening:  A panic attack occurs when the body activates the flight, fight, or freeze stress response.  This dumps stress hormones (adrenaline) into your blood stream. 

 

These hormones change the way you feel physically, not unlike drinking too much coffee.  These hormones prepare you for action and cause your muscles to constrict and your breathing and heart rate to increase.  This can then create the sensation of chest pain (muscle tension), a pounding heart, and tingling sensations in the hands.

 

A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart. This causes significant damage to a part of the heart and causes feelings of achy pain and squeezing pressure in the chest. Heart attacks are mainly due to coronary artery disease.

 

How you can tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack: Chest Pain during a panic attack is localized. The pain experienced during a panic attack is usually sharp and localized in the chest.

 

Chest pain during a heart attack is felt as achy pressure or squeezing that travels. The pain during a heart attack is experienced more as pressure and squeezing, and often starts in the chest and radiates or travels to other parts of the body such as the arms, back, and jaw.

 

Onset and duration are also different. A panic attack starts abruptly, often when feeling nervous or anxious, and last between 15 and 20 minutes.

 

The symptoms of a heart attack may also start abruptly but often begin gradually. The symptoms of a heart attack also last longer and increase as time goes by. 

 

 

2.  The “I’m going to faint!” Myth About A  Panic Attack

 

 

Many people fear that they will faint or pass out as a result of feeling light-headed or dizzy during a panic attack.

 

Fainting during a panic attack is a myth.

 

What is really happening: Our breathing changes significantly when our sympathetic nervous system kicks in. The way we breathe is directly related with the way we feel.

 

Normal breathing is relaxed and our levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide are balanced, allowing our bodies to function efficiently.

 

During exercise our breathing increases to meet the demands for more oxygen to fuel our muscles.

 

We also exhale more when exercising to eliminate the increased carbon dioxide waste. This creates a helpful balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood.

 

When we are anxious our breathing rate also increases and we breathe faster. We take in more oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.

 

But if we are not actively running or fighting the misperceived danger of a panic attack, then our bodies don’t use up all of the oxygen.

 

As a result, the extra oxygen doesn’t get transformed it into carbon dioxide waste.

 

At the same time we are still rapidly breathing out what little carbon dioxide is left in our blood stream.

 

This causes an imbalance with too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide in our blood. This condition is called respiratory alkalosis.

 

The extra oxygen can cause us to feel light-headed and feel tingling in our fingers and toes.

 

This is why people believe this panic attack myth and fear that they will faint or pass out as a result of feeling light-headed or dizzy during a panic attack. 

 

The fight or flight response actually causes an increase in blood pressure which is designed to keep you from passing out during times of danger.

 

Fainting happens when there is a drop in blood pressure that reduces circulation of oxygen to the brain.

 

 
 

3.  “I’m going to lose control!” 

 

 

Losing control is a common myth about panic attacks.

 

Panic attacks cause people to feel out of control. 

 

Remember that when the sympathetic nervous system (Fight or Flight) kicks in, it is fast, automatic, and is activated mostly without our conscious control. 

 

This is why you feel out of control and fear losing control during a panic attack. Most people attempt to gain more control or maintain control when panicking. 

 

If you are driving when a panic attack happens, you may grip the steering wheel tighter. You become over-controlled in response to panic and your fear of losing control. Having a panic attack while driving is more common than you think

 

Unfortunately, this reinforces the false perception that there is danger. This can increase the level of anxiety and further fuel a panic attack. 

  

 

 

4:  “I’m going to lose my mind or go crazy!”

 

 

See panic attack myth #3.  This panic attack myth is related to feeling out of control and you fear that you will continue to lose touch with reality and never come back.

 

A couple symptoms of a panic attack are de-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself).

 

This can often feel like you are losing your mind and going crazy.

 

But this is only a temporary symptom. 

 

Panic attacks do not cause severe mental illness.  

 

 

5.  “I will have panic attacks for the rest of my life and be stuck on medication.”

 

 

This myth about panic attacks is not true.  In fact Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found to be more effective in comparison to a placebo pill or a psychological control condition (Hofmann et al. 2008).  Treatment outcomes of CBT can also be sustained over time, with little decrease in treatment gains at 6 to 12 month follow-up assessments (Haby et al. 2006). 

 

Medication combined with cognitive behavioral therapy is also very helpful and most people are able to stop taking medication when they learn to manage anxiety and stop the cycle of panic.

 

 

How to stop panic attacks: 

 

How to Stop A Panic Attack: 7 Steps 

What To Do In A Panic Attack: 4 Great Ways to Cope 

Panic Attacks In Children - How To Help Your Child

 

 

For more information:

 

Please purchase my book “Attacking Panic:  The Power to Be Calm” for more in depth information on how to stop panic attacks quickly and how to treat the root cause (Amygdala/Sympathetic Nervous System). 

 

The book shows you how to go beyond just giving up control and allowing yourself to experience a panic attack.  

 

The book has more powerful strategies that will short-circuit your fight or flight system, stop a panic attack very quickly, and even prevent a panic attack from occurring. 

 

 

 

 

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Russell Hunter, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist

I want to help you. Please feel free to contact me confidentially by email below with any questions or if you need some advice about the content posted on The Fear Blog.

Attacking Panic: The Power To Be Calm. Copyright © 2017 Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. All rights reserved. Attacking Panic is available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon and in paperback at Barnes & Noble and other online retailers.

How to Stop A Panic Attack Quickly.

Russell A. Hunter, Psy.D. Psychology Today Profile

National Register of Health Service Psychologists

8644 Sudley Road, Suite 315 Manassas VA 20110

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