Mental health

The Importance of Awareness, pt 5: What are Panic Attacks?

What are the symptoms of panic attacks?

Panic attacks show both physical and emotional symptoms. Among the physical symptoms there are shortness of breath,  racing heartbeat, tingling of arms and legs, shaking, sweating, dizziness, sensation of choking, nausea. The main emotional symptoms are fear that you are about to die or lose control, fear of a disaster, intense dread, feeling of being in a black box, constant fear of having another panic attack (after the first episode occurred).

What are they not?

They are not simple anxiety: Being nervous before a test is normal, that’s a healthy kind of anxiety that helps us focus and do better. They are not a simple fear of something: If you are afraid of the dark, there is probably a deeper reason for it, but this doesn’t mean that it is a panic attack.

Why do they come?

A stressful event, a big life transition, loss, separation or substance (drugs and alcohol) abuse can trigger panic attacks. Usually, though, they are connected to some past event which the patient failed to elaborate properly.

Who is more likely to suffer from panic disorder?

There may be a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders. All ethnic groups are vulnerable to panic disorder. It seems that women are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder, for reasons still unknown. Differently from what is commonly thought, “excessive sensibility” and “weakness of character” are not determining factors.

How can you treat them?

Psychotherapy: It looks for the underlying cause of the panic attacks. It usually takes at least one year and a half to complete, but it’s the most effective solution in the long run. Usually the reason is to be found in a past even or emotion that failed to be properly elaborated and still brings anxiety to the patient, even though it can’t be identified by the patient himself. That’s why the path of psychoanalysis is necessary to find it and solve it at a deeper level.

Medication: It can consist of antidepressants or beta-blockers. They may take several weeks to start working. Benzodiazepines (also known as tranquilizers) are also used to cure anxiety, to be taken only when the panic attack or anxiety episode occurs. None of them should be taken for long periods, and all of them have side-effects.

N.B. Anxiety medication can provide temporary relief, but it doesn’t treat the underlying cause of the anxiety disorder. Once you stop taking the drug, the anxiety symptoms often return in full force. This is why they are supposed to be used as a support to psychotherapy, in case the symptoms are severe enough to interfere with your ability to function.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: Many people are greatly helped by simply understanding exactly what panic disorder is, and how many others suffer from it. Many people who suffer from panic disorder are worried that their panic attacks mean they’re “going crazy” or that the panic might induce a heart attack. “Cognitive restructuring” (changing one’s way of thinking) helps people replace those thoughts with more realistic, positive ways of viewing the attacks. Cognitive therapy can help the patient identify possible triggers for the attacks. Once the patient understands that the panic attack is separate and independent of the trigger, that trigger begins to lose some of its power to induce an attack.

The behavioral part of the therapy can help patients go through the symptoms of an attack (elevated heart rate, hot flashes, sweating, and so on) in a controlled setting, and teach them that these symptoms need not develop into a full-blown attack.

Relaxation techniques can further help someone “flow through” an attack. These techniques include breathing retraining and positive visualization. Some experts have found that people with panic disorder tend to have slightly higher than average breathing rates, learning to slow this can help someone deal with a panic attack and can also prevent future attacks.

One third of the people affected by panic attacks do not seek/receive treatment. This is why awareness is so important!

I am not a doctor nor a therapist. This information comes from personal experience and online research. Here are some of the sources I used to write this post:


10 thoughts on “The Importance of Awareness, pt 5: What are Panic Attacks?

  1. When I explain to my friends how my panic attacks feel I always say that it’s like I am ok, perhaps sitting at my desk and then all at once this feeling of being out of control, anxiety start to build up from my toes up and then my heart starts beating so loudly that that is all I hear. I am shaking, and feeling out of breath, I want to scream but can’t. It feels like it is lasting for hours and it is usually just 5-10 minutes.

    It is great that you are talking about this, because things like this should be heard!

    Liked by 1 person

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