What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is an episode in which the individual experiences an increased heart rate, severe anxiety, shaking, and shortness of breath. It often occurs as a result of a Generalized Anxiety Disorder but can occur with no comorbid emotional disorder.

A panic attack can last for up to 10 minutes. Sometimes it only occurs once in a person’s lifetime, but can occur more frequently. When panic attacks are common, the patient may have a panic disorder. 

In the moments before the attack, the patient may feel a buildup of anxiety. The aftermath can be brutal for the patient, leaving her spent for as long as a day. After a panic attack, the patient may also experience heightened stress as he or she fears the recurrence of the panic attack. 

Reactions with no External Driver

What is unique about panic attacks is that they happen when nothing external has occurred that might inspire such a huge reaction. For example, being attacked by someone might leave someone filled with anxiety and shock. The panic attack patient, as a contrast, has no such trauma to react to.

For this reason, some may want to dismiss the suffering of those who experience panic attacks. What patients and others need to realize is that panic attacks are real and serious, and deserve compassionate treatment.

The Statistics

  • 1 in 75 people will have a panic attack at some point in their life
  • Each month 1 million Americans have a panic attack
  • One-third of those with panic attacks also have agoraphobia
  • 40 percent of those with panic disorder have depression

The Symptoms of a Panic Attack 

Symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Feelings of lost control
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the chest
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Feelings of doom
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Tingling in arms and legs
  • Perspiration

At times, a patient may think a panic attack is actually a heart attack. If someone is at all unsure whether their attack is a heart attack or not, they should contact 911.

Stopping Panic Attacks

Working with a mental health professional is the best way to address panic attacks. If you are waiting to begin treatment or in between sessions, you can use some of the following techniques to make the experience of a panic attack easier. 

Focused Breathing

Engage in focused breathing by closing your eyes and centering your thoughts on your breath, watching it with your mind’s eye as it flows in and out of your lungs. This can help calm the mind. 

Name the Attack

Name the panic attack as it occurs. Acknowledging that it is a panic attack takes some of its power away. 

Ground Yourself in the External World

Try to stay focused on three things happening around you when a panic attack begins. These might be sensations, smells, or sounds. Use them to stay grounded in the external world.

Relax Your Muscles

Relax the muscles in your body one by one, starting at your toes and working your way up. 

Anxiety Attacks vs. Panic Attacks

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks may seem very similar, but they are actually quite different. The most significant distinction between the two is that anxiety attacks are driven by external stimuli. Panic attacks have no external triggers. Once the trigger of an anxiety attack has disappeared, the attack will disappear as well.