Panic Attack: Signs, Symptoms, & Treatment

March 11, 2024

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Panic attacks manifest as abrupt surges of overwhelming fear, triggering physical reactions like an accelerated heartbeat, rapid breathing, and perspiration. Individuals experiencing panic attacks may be diagnosed with panic disorder, a specific category of anxiety disorder. Both panic attacks and panic disorder can be managed with therapeutic interventions and medications.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

A panic attack presents as a sudden and overwhelming surge of fear, marked by its unexpected nature and severe, paralyzing effect. Panic attacks can speed up heart rate, make breathing difficult, and provoke feelings of impending doom or loss of sanity. These episodes can happen unpredictably, often without any apparent reason, and may even arise during moments of calm or while sleeping.

While some people experience a single isolated panic attack, others may face repeated manifestations. Recurring episodes may be associated with specific scenarios, such as crossing a bridge or speaking publicly, especially if those situations have previously led to a panic attack. Such episodes are triggered in settings where a person feels threatened and trapped, activating the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism.

It’s possible to have panic attacks and still lead a generally happy and healthy life. Panic attacks can also be a symptom of other mental health conditions, including panic disorder, social anxiety, or major depressive disorder. However, the good news is that panic attacks are manageable. There are effective techniques available to lessen or eradicate panic symptoms, helping you to rebuild confidence and regain control over your life.

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Signs of a Panic Attack

Before the onset of the more intense symptoms of a panic attack, there are often early signs that can indicate an attack is imminent. These signs can serve as warning signals, helping people recognize the need for coping strategies or interventions. Key signs of an impending panic attack include:

  • A sudden surge of overwhelming anxiety or fear
  • Feeling unusually irritable or restless
  • An increase in stress levels without an obvious cause
  • Sensations of dizziness or lightheadedness
  • A noticeable increase in heart rate or palpitations even before other symptoms appear
  • Difficulty concentrating or a feeling of being detached from your surroundings
  • A sense of impending doom or danger
  • Experiencing sudden, inexplicable changes in mood

Recognizing these early signs can help in managing a panic attack, allowing individuals or those around them to employ coping mechanisms or seek a safe, comforting environment. Following these signs, the more recognizable and severe symptoms of a panic attack may manifest.

Panic Attack Symptoms

How long do panic attacks last? A panic attack typically strikes without warning, reaching its peak intensity within 10 minutes before swiftly subsiding. During a panic attack, physical symptoms often reported include:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Accelerated heartbeat
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling cold
  • Upset stomach
  • Excessive sweating
  • Numbness in fingers or toes

Emotionally, the experience can be overwhelming, characterized by:

  • Severe fear or dread
  • Sensation of choking or suffocation
  • Fear of spiraling out of control
  • Premonition of impending doom
  • Derealization (a sense of unreality)
  • Depersonalization (feeling disconnected from self)

Undergoing a panic attack can be distressing and alarming. If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, consult a healthcare professional. They can provide a proper diagnosis and rule out any other physical conditions that might be contributing to these symptoms.

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How to Stop Panic Attacks

If panic attacks are rendering your life difficult to manage, consider the following steps:

Learn about panic attacks and anxiety

Understanding the nature of panic attacks and anxiety can alleviate some of the fear associated with them. Research resources that explain the physiological and psychological aspects of panic attacks to gain insight into your condition.

Practice relaxation techniques

Engaging in relaxation exercises like deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help calm the body’s stress response. These techniques promote relaxation and reduce feelings of anxiety during panic episodes.

Reframe negative thoughts

Challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to panic attacks. Reframing your mindset and adopting a more positive outlook can help you cope with stressful situations more effectively.

Prioritize self-care

Make self-care a priority in your daily routine. Engage in activities that promote physical and emotional well-being, such as regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy nutrition. Taking care of your overall health can reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks.

Reach out for support

Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or support groups for encouragement and guidance. Sharing your experiences with others who understand can provide validation and reassurance during difficult times.

Engage with therapy

Therapy is the cornerstone for effectively managing panic attacks, panic disorder, and agoraphobia. Even a brief period of therapeutic intervention can make a significant difference.

CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is a form of talk therapy which explores the thought processes and actions that fuel or trigger your panic attacks, guiding you toward a more grounded perspective on your fears rather than catastrophizing. For example, consider a panic attack occurring while driving. Even though you might need to pull over, the chances of a catastrophic event like a car crash or a heart attack are minimal. Understanding that the feared outcomes are unlikely to occur can demystify the panic experience, making it less intimidating.

Exposure therapy for panic disorder involves safely and systematically confronting the physical sensations associated with panic. This might include exercises designed to mimic panic symptoms – hyperventilation or shaking, for instance. These controlled exposures help you become accustomed to and less fearful of these sensations, enhancing your ability to manage panic.

For those dealing with panic disorder with agoraphobia, exposure therapy extends to facing the very situations you avoid due to fear. By gradually confronting these scenarios, you learn that they are not as dangerous as believed, promoting an improved sense of emotional control.

Consulting with a qualified therapist can provide targeted support for managing anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and other aspects that may play into panic attacks. Online platforms like BetterHelp offer access to licensed therapists, streamlining appropriate placement for those seeking assistance.

Medications can offer temporary relief from panic disorder symptoms but should not be used as a standalone solution. Effective treatment involves a combination of medications, therapy, and lifestyle adjustments to address the root causes of panic disorder.

Panic attack medication might include:

  • Antidepressants: This class of medication requires consistent use over several weeks to take effect, rather than only during panic episodes. 
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzos are fast-acting anti-anxiety medications that can offer rapid symptom relief. Xanax (alprazolam) is commonly prescribed for acute panic attack management, working by calming an overactive central nervous system. However, due to the risk of dependence and addiction with frequent use, benzodiazepines are indicated only for short-term management of symptoms. Misuse can lead to severe consequences, including withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation, confusion, coma, or even death.

How to Help Someone Having a Panic Attack

Being able to identify when someone is having a panic attack is the first step in providing help. Common symptoms include hyperventilation, chest pain, sweating, and a sense of impending doom.

Here’s what to do:

  • Find a quiet space where the person can feel more secure.
  • Remain calm and composed. Your demeanor can have a soothing effect on the person experiencing the panic attack.
  • Assure them that they’re not alone and that the panic attack will pass. Remind them that what they are experiencing is temporary.
  • Encourage slow, deep breathing. Guiding them through breathing exercises can help regulate their breath and alleviate symptoms.
  • Engage them in simple, grounding activities such as counting objects in the room or describing their surroundings.

Here’s what not to do:

  • Don’t dismiss or minimize their feelings. Even if the fear seems irrational, it’s very real to them.
  • Don’t pressure them to “snap out of it.” Panic attacks are not a choice and attempting to force someone to calm down can inflame their distress.

While immediate support is essential during a panic attack, seeking professional help will improve long-term management. Suggest therapy or counseling options where the person can learn coping mechanisms and strategies to manage their panic attacks effectively.

Being there for a loved one during a panic attack requires patience, empathy, and understanding. By following these steps and offering support without judgment, you can play a significant role in helping them navigate through this challenging experience and seek the assistance they need for long-term well-being.

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Get Treatment for Panic Attacks at Connections

If you or someone that you care about requires panic attack treatments, reach out to Connections Mental Health. We specialize in helping people overcome episodes of panic that are constraining their lives.

When you choose to address mental health issues at our anxiety treatment center in Orange County, you can access targeted and personalized treatments, helping you to restore functioning and improve overall well-being.

Our experienced and compassionate mental health treatment team will guide you and a handful of peers tackling similar issues through individualized inpatient treatment that addresses all aspects of panic or anxiety. Therapies may include counseling, talk therapies, motivational therapies, and holistic treatments. We also provide medication management services at our beachside facility.

Call 844-759-0999 and take action against panic attacks right away.

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