What does a Panic Attack Feel Like?
According to the National Institute Of Mental Health, an estimated 4.7% of U.S. adults experience panic disorder at some time in their lives.
If you have never had a panic attack before, it can be difficult to understand what it would feel like. Friends or family that have been dealing with panic attacks may also have a difficult time explaining what it feels like to have a panic attack.
If you have just experienced your first panic attack, it can be very frightening and confusing.
My patients describe a panic attack (anxiety attack) as feeling like they are going to die or lose their mind, suddenly and out of the blue. Their heart begins to pound, they feel light headed, and they have tunnel vision. They are terrified and fear what might come next.
People will sometimes have more of one symptom than another. Some may feel tingling sensations, shaky, or hot all over. Others will notice a rapid pounding heart, difficulty breathing, and feel like they will lose total control.
The feeling of losing mental and physical control causes overwhelming feelings of helplessness that further fuels a panic attack.
The common feeling among all is Fear. Panic is synonymous with Fear. It's the feeling of extreme dread about what might happen next. Panic attacks cause people to become fearful of future panic attacks, this is known as the Fear of Fear.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden and uncontrollable feeling of fear and anxiety. Panic attacks can happen during specific feared situations and they can happen randomly during periods of non-threatening, normal activities such as sitting and watching TV.
After experiencing a first panic attack, the fear becomes about experiencing another one.
People often believe the myths about panic attacks. These myths further fuel their fear. So it's important to know the symptoms and what is actually happening.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
Trembling or shaking
Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
Feelings of choking
Chest pain or discomfort
Nausea or abdominal distress
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
Chills or heat sensations
Numbness or tingling sensations
De-realization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
Fear of losing control or “going crazy”Fear of dying
What are the causes for Panic Attacks?
Fear of having a panic attack. With Panic Attacks, one of the main causes is worry and fear of having future panic attacks after experiencing your first panic attack.
Stress and Anxiety
Tension and stress from daily life events and activities has a way of building up and overwhelming our perceived ability to cope with them.
Apprehension about future events, phobic situations, and a perception of not being able to cope further leads to feelings of helplessness and feeling out of control.
Other anxiety disorders such as PTSD, social anxiety, and phobias all have the potential risk to trigger panic attacks. To protect its’ self, the body’s sympathetic nervous system turns on the flight, fight, or freeze mechanism. Now the person feels a sense of internal danger and experiences symptoms of a panic attack.
Misinterpretation of Physical Symptoms
Misinterpretation of bodily sensations is another common trigger for a panic attack.
Two minutes after running up a flight of stairs, a pounding heart and shortness of breath is misinterpreted as an internal threat such as a heart attack or other cardiac event.
This misinterpretation causes fear of survival which turns on the flight or freeze response.
This increases the heart rate and physical discomfort further and confirms the person’s misinterpretation of physical danger. The cycle of panic is then triggered and the person experiences a panic attack.
What are the risk factors for Panic Attacks?
Family history of anxiety: Some research indicates that first-degree relatives of patients with panic disorder have higher rates of panic disorder than relatives of patients with major depression and relatives of healthy controls (Goldstein et al 1994).
Respiratory illnesses: Conditions such as asthma can cause breathing issues that lead to shortness of breath and feeling dizzy. This could cause the fear of internal physical danger, triggering a panic attack.
Environment: Stress, physical and psychological abuse, traumatic events, the death of a loved one, divorce, abandonment, and maladaptive behaviors learned from parents pose a greater risk for the development of an anxiety disorder such as panic disorder. Those with an anxiety disorder may have inherited anxiety from their families as a result of stressful family and life circumstances.
Other anxieties: Other anxieties such as PTSD, social anxiety, and phobias all have the potential risk to trigger panic attacks.
What is the treatment for panic attacks?
If you believe you could have Panic Disorder it will be helpful and important to seek consultation with a mental health professional to first verify the diagnosis and then receive appropriate treatment.
Treatment often consists of a combination of self-help on ways to stop a panic attack, medication, and psychotherapy. Medication helps take the edge off the physical symptoms of anxiety and psychotherapy helps to challenge irrational thinking and beliefs that lead to the panic attacks.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a well-researched and highly effective form of talk therapy that focuses on learning more helpful ways of thinking and behaving.
CBT has been found to be more effective in comparison to a placebo pill or a psychological control condition (Hofmann et al. 2008).
You learn different ways of responding to the symptoms of a panic attack. CBT helps challenge and change unhelpful beliefs that cause anxiety by restructuring your automatic thinking.
CBT sessions also provide education on the symptoms of panic disorder.
Cognitive restructuring is used to identify and dispute unhelpful, automatic, and irrational thinking so that you can create highly effective thoughts with the power to alter your emotions and behavior.
An example of an irrational thought is “What if I can’t escape from that place. I’ll have a panic attack and lose control.”
We develop beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world. These beliefs influence how we think. If you believe that the world is basically a dangerous place, then your thoughts will follow. If you believe that you are defective and not a capable person, then your thoughts will reflect those beliefs.
It is not the public place that causes the anxiety, it’s your thinking and beliefs that cause the fear and anxiety.
Exposure therapy, also known as prolonged exposure, is a form of CBT.
As with most anxiety disorders, in order to learn how to overcome the symptoms of panic disorder, you need to have the experience of successfully managing the symptoms.
This often means exposing yourself to the thoughts, images, and the public places that trigger the panic attacks, and then applying the coping strategies until the thoughts, images, and public places no longer produce the same level of fear.
For more information:
Please check out the 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).