A panic attack is the sudden experience of a terrifying and overwhelming surge of fear. The attack can be brought on by known triggers or can sometimes occur seemingly “out of the blue.” Panic attacks are very distressing and, once over, leave the person feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. As a result, people who experience panic attacks are highly motivated to avoid having another one.
One of the most important things to understand is that a panic attack is not something that occurs only in the mind. In fact, it is largely physiological.
What happens during a panic attack?
When a panic attack is triggered, a range of things happens in the body. The heart begins to pound, with trembling, shaking, shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, and even nausea often occur as well. The nervous system kicks into a fight or flight response and releases adrenaline and other stress hormones. The person often feels an intense sense of dread and may think they are about to die. Understandably, people often believe they may be having a heart attack or a medical emergency when they are having a panic attack.
Why do panic attacks happen?
Panic attacks can happen only once in a person’s life or can become a reoccurring pattern. They can happen without warning or can be brought on by specific triggers that are known to cause fear, such as being in an enclosed space or even experiencing an internal symptom such as feeling hot or flushed. Sometimes the physical sensation (being too hot) can bring up a fear of having a panic attack, which can then trigger an escalation of fear that could lead to a panic attack.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Diagnosis requires a full assessment in order to determine we are in fact dealing with panic disorder. It is important to rule out potential medical causes when diagnosing panic disorder. Some people may be especially sensitive to substances, such as caffeine or other stimulants, that can trigger a panic attack. It is therefore important to pay attention to what you are consuming that may trigger anxiety.
Panic attacks, no matter what the cause, are treatable.
In therapy, we work to understand what is happening in the body during a panic attack. When you understand what is going on from the beginning, a panic attack is less distressing and can be avoided or controlled.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is an effective approach for treating panic attacks and anxiety in general. CBT allows us to identify and restructure negative thinking patterns that cause fear and anxiety. In therapy, we work to understand your thoughts and how they lead to anxiety. Thinking is then adjusted in a manner that is healthier and ultimately more realistic. CBT is often a good option for people who want to avoid medication.
CBT begins to work almost immediately and gives you tools to take home with you. These tools and skills can make a substantial change in the emotional and psychological health of one’s life.
Other treatment approaches for panic attacks and panic disorder
- Learning and practicing relaxation techniques
- Exposure therapy
- Dialectical behavior therapy
If you have experienced one or several panic attacks, it is important to seek help. An untreated panic disorder can lead to avoidance of many different situations which may trigger a panic attack. For some people, this means avoiding public transportation, crowds, wide-open areas, or other types of triggers that are specific to you. Avoidance can lead to further mental health problems such as depression or agoraphobia.
Avoidance of regular life situations can also cause difficulties with career, social life, family life, and even your physical health. There is no reason to allow panic disorder to get out of control.
Reach out for treatment and feel better.
Dr. Jennifer Lish is a clinical psychologist practicing in Worcester, MA. Call us now to book an appointment or fill out the contact form and click send. She also offers anxiety treatment for kids and teens. Click here to learn more about how Dr. Lish can help.Please share this post!